Behavioral Symptoms

Why Do People Bite Lips When They're Anxious?

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

Why Do People Bite Lips When They're Anxious?

Many people bite their lip when they have anxiety. It's extremely common and occurs not only with anxiety disorders but also with nervous flirting, nervous tension, and just a feeling of something being amiss. It's an unconscious behavior that many people are unaware of, and others struggle to control.

For many, biting lips can be fairly frustrating - especially if they don't realize they're doing it. They may find that their lips are bleeding or raw because they're biting their lips too hard or too often. What is the cause of this type of nervous tic, and what can you do to suppress it?

What Causes Anxiety Lip Biting?

Lip biting may be a sign of underlying anxiety, but it almost always occurs with other symptoms.

One would think that lip biting would have an obvious cause. After all, millions of people do it, and it's an extremely common anxiety symptom. But unfortunately, no one is sure what causes lip biting or why it occurs. It's essentially a nervous habit - a an anxious behavior.

No one knows why people have these types of motor tics or what relationship they have to anxiety. But they can often develop into bad habits, and once the tic has become a habit, it can be hard to break.

Tics and Coping

Most likely, lip biting and other behavioral habits provide the body with some coping strategy. It's the same reason that some people shake their legs when they're nervous or blink too often. Something inside the brain wants to perform this behavior, and it may have some coping component that the person is not aware of.

Nevertheless, any bad behavioral habit should be stopped if possible. If left unchecked, these habits can be hard to break and may lead to embarrassment and possibly pain. Even though your body may be using them to cope, generally they won't cause additional anxiety if you stop the habit from occurring.

How to Stop Anxiety Habits Like Lip Biting

In a paper titled "Relax and Try This Instead: Abbreviated Habit Reversal for Maladaptive Self Biting" several researchers examined an example strategy to stop biting nervous habits. They provided the following strategy for a 15-year-old boy that was biting his lip too hard with anxiety:

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as "deep breathing" is a relaxation strategy that many people use to control their breathing. The researchers recommended utilizing this strategy during times of stress. It involves taking slow, controlled breaths with a straight back and breathing in through your stomach, not your chest.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation The researchers recommend you combined deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation. This tactic involves tensing each muscle one at a time and draining muscles of energy so that they don't have the strength to provide anxiety symptoms and allow you to feel more relaxed.
  • Competing Response The researchers also recommend developing what they term a "competing response." A competing response is a behavior that makes it impossible to bite your lip. For example, rubbing your lip with your finger or tongue.

They found in their study that patients were able to stop the biting reflex completely. They were able to decrease biting reflexes in the child dramatically, and it stands to reason that this could be used on adults as well.

A competing response may not even be necessary. You can also practice a technique called "mindfulness." Mindfulness is simply the act of trying to be more aware of your anxiety symptoms. In a way, the competing reflex does this - it forces you to think about your lip biting so that it's not a habit but a choice, and then prevents you from doing it.

Mindfulness practices allow something similar. The more you pay attention to the habit and prevent yourself from performing the action, the less of a habit it becomes.

Of course, you still need to make sure that you're taking steps to cure your anxiety because that is the key to making sure that your habit becomes completely unnecessary. Cure your anxiety, and your anxiety habit will go away.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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