Home Health What’s Behind a Bouncing Leg? Experts Explain

What’s Behind a Bouncing Leg? Experts Explain

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What’s Behind a Bouncing Leg? Experts Explain

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Many habits come and go. Bitter polish rid me of nail biting; a teasing grandmother freed me from nervous knuckle cracking. But there is one that has stuck around for as long as I can remember—I am *always* shaking my leg whenever I’m sitting down. Sometimes it’s a loose bounce from the knee; other times it’s more my foot and ankle that are rapidly tapping.

In coffeeshops, on dates, while riding the subway, and throughout work calls, this fidgeting is so omnipresent that I rarely notice it until a friend places a steadying hand on my leg to quiet the tapping. This habit isn’t unique; my dad, brother, and several friends do it, too.

Why do we subconsciously shake our legs? And is there anything that can be done to tame the habit? I spoke to a psychiatrist and a neuroscience expert to hear what they have to say about this common tic.

Taking stock of my leg shaking

As I started working on this story, I spent two weeks tracking the when, where, and why of the habit. I’d be waiting for a friend at a cafe and left alone with my mental to-dos for a moment too long… and my boot would start clicking against the table. Or I’d be on a Zoom call listening to person after person present, knowing that my turn is approaching; with a mix of nerves and anticipation… tap, tap tap.

I first wondered if there were any external factors that impacted my bouncing leg. But I found that the habit doesn’t discriminate based on location, time of day, whether or not I have company, or what shoes I’m wearing. (I send my condolences to anyone that’s been around me during my vintage tap shoe loafer phase.)

However, I did find a trend in how I was feeling. I was typically bored; tired; feeling anxious, stressed, or insecure; in physical pain; or excited.

What causes leg bouncing, according to science?

There can be a number of reasons why we end up bouncing our legs without thinking about it. Getting to the source can be the key to calming the shake.

Stress and anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect more than 31 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institutes of Health. The increased cortisol levels mean a higher heart rate and a compensatory need to move or “let it out.” That’s because movement increases blood flow and can release tension that is being stored in muscles, making tapping a good coping mechanism.

“In fact, doctors encourage exercise, because it regulates anxiety and mood [and] leg shaking is, in a certain sense, a form of exercise,” explains Cheryl Collins, MD, a top psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. “One way of thinking about it is as a mini HIIT.”

As psychologist Serenity Serseción, PhD, previously told Well+Good, fidgeting “has a similar but smaller effect to exercise when it is not possible, such as in a work situation.”

Another way to de-stress? Through a mindful stretch session: 

An attempt to concentrate

According to a 2015 study, “research in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suggests that repetitive movements improve concentration and attention.” This same effect could account for the increased incidents of leg shaking while working from home. Dr. Collins explains that the stimulus can help quiet restless or hyperactive parts of the brain and even help with focus, especially when dealing with a “negative stimulus” such as boredom or distraction.

Too much caffeine

Another contributing factor could be your soda or coffee intake. “The consumption of stimulants, such as caffeine, has the potential to intensify the rate and occurrence of leg shaking,” both because it is a neurological stimulant and because increased caffeine intake is often linked to fatigue or exhaustion—factors that exacerbate restlessness, brain fog, trouble focusing, and anxiety, notes Better Help.

A need for physical release

Recently, I’ve been nursing a hip and spine injury that has forced me to take a step back from running—formerly, an integral part of my morning routine that rid me of a lot of pent-up energy. Without it, that energy has had nowhere to go and neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap, Patrick Porter, PhD, explains that I’ve likely been using my leg bouncing as “a subconscious means of physical release.”

When it’s something more serious

Not all leg shaking is equal. It is important to distinguish between “simple leg shaking or fidgeting—a sign of nervousness, stress, or boredom—and restless leg syndrome, a recognized neurological disorder characterized by a strong, often irresistible urge to move one’s legs,” says Dr. Porter. “If leg shaking is accompanied by discomfort or pain…it is essential to seek health advice.”

Should you tame the habit?

With a niggling sense of insecurity, I asked three friends their thoughts on how my leg shaking habit impacts them. Two laughed and said something to the effect of, you’ve always done it, but we literally all do it. One joked about how her new job was going to make one leg 10 times stronger than the other because she taps all day. The third noted that, despite not being entirely conscious of it, the tapping sound and corresponding movement in the corner of her eye “actually does add a bit of stress…I don’t think I realized until you mentioned it, but it kind of feels like we’re in a rush. Like we’re late for something.”

Dr. Porter acknowledges that “leg shaking might be perceived as a sign of nervousness or impatience by others, which can lead to miscommunication or misunderstanding in social or professional situations,” he says. “In quiet or shared spaces, this repetitive movement can be distracting or annoying to others.”

There is no obvious danger that comes with leg shaking (as long as it’s not accompanied by pain), and the movement can often feel helpful. But it is sometimes distracting, can take a toll on your productivity, and can cause a sense of restlessness or contagious agitation in the people around you.

If it bothers you, Dr. Porter suggests “recognizing when you’re shaking your leg and understanding the triggers” to help manage the habit. He recommends getting regular exercise, limiting caffeine intake, practicing healthy sleep habits, changing your posture, and using stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or BrainTap. You can also address the nervous emotions that could be a trigger with a professional therapist. Similarly, substituting the habit with another movement-based behavior like squeezing a stress ball could also provide relief, notes Dr. Porter.

The more I think about it, I realize that my leg shaking has been a way that I’ve exercised control in situations where I feel that I lack it. For me, being conscious of the habit and writing down feelings that have triggered the tapping have been helpful in limiting its frequency. But unlike nail biting and knuckle cracking, I think my leg shaking will stick with me for a while.

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Harmony Evans is an award-winning author of Harlequin Kimani Romance, African-American romance, and so on. Harmony Evans is an award-winning author for Harlequin Kimani Romance, the leading publisher of African-American romance. Her 2nd novel, STEALING KISSES, will be released in November 2013. Harmony is a single mom to a beautiful, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who makes her grateful for life daily. Her hobbies include cooking, baking, knitting, reading, and of course, napping and also review some of the best-selling and popular brands and services in the market and also write comprehensive blogs.

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