Behavioral Symptoms
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Why Do People Bite Lips When They're Anxious?

Micah Abraham, BSc
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:

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.

Article Resources
  1. Jones, Kevin M., Susan M. Swearer, and Patrick C. Friman. Relax and try this instead: abbreviated habit reversal for maladaptive self-biting. Journal of applied behavior analysis 30.4 (1997): 697.
  2. Lyon, Lionel Sasson. A behavioral treatment of compulsive lip-biting. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry 14.3 (1983): 275-276.
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