If Seeing Someone Else Fidget Makes You Anxious, You’re Not Alone—Here’s Why This Phenomenon Happens

Photo: Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt
A few minutes into the final exam for my psychology class, I realized I had made a poor decision about where to sit. Of course, I couldn’t have predicted that the student seated on my right would spend the next two and a half hours shaking his leg nonstop. The seats were bolted to the floor, so all I could do was lean to the left slightly to try to keep his incessant fidgeting out of my line of sight.

Each time I got to a new question, I tried to shield my eyes with the palm of my hand, trying to think of the answer as quickly as possible. But no matter what I did, there was his leg bobbing away in my peripheral vision.

Experts In This Article

Turns out, I was experiencing a psychological phenomenon called misokinesia, which means “hatred of movements.”

Misokinesia is “an aversive reaction to seeing small, repetitive movements by others, such as fidgeting with a pen or tapping a foot,” says Sumeet Jaswal, a PhD candidate and instructor at Langara College in Vancouver. As lead author of the first study on misokinesia (in 2021), Jaswal investigated the occurrence of this phenomenon in 4100 participants. She and her colleagues found that approximately one-third of people experience some degree of sensitivity to seeing others fidget, including intense reactions like anger and anxiety.

Some participants even mentioned opting out of certain social activities because of their discomfort with seeing other people’s repetitive movements and gestures—suggesting that misokinesia can have a serious negative effect on someone's social and emotional life. Jaswal and her colleagues suspect that this effect increases with age, since older adults with misokinesia reported less enjoyment of social activities.

What kinds of things trigger misokinesia?

Some people have an easy time tuning out certain aspects of their environment, like seeing someone tapping their finger or bouncing their leg. For someone with misokinesia, however, the repetitive nature of these movements—and the fact that someone else is doing them—is particularly unnerving, Jaswal explains. Having someone else fidget within their view might make them feel tense, uncomfortable, or, as in my case, have difficulty concentrating.

There are also differences between individuals with respect to the movements that trigger misokinesia, says Hayley Nelson, PhD, psychology professor and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. A person chewing gum might be a trigger for you while causing no discomfort for someone else with misokinesia. Maybe their trigger is seeing someone twirling their hair. Also, certain “repetitive movements might lead to stronger reactions due to their frequency or rhythm,” Dr. Nelson explains. Meaning: Your partner rapidly tapping their foot while you watch TV might stress you out more than if they were doing it more slowly.

Why would someone else’s fidgeting make us anxious?

It might seem odd to be bothered by something as mundane as someone else’s fidgeting tics. But you’re not alone in getting annoyed. Some people, instead of having a visual sensitivity, have a strong aversion to certain sounds, like hearing someone chewing or smacking their lips.

In fact, “misokinesia can be best understood as a counterpart to misophonia,” Dr. Nelson says. “Misophonia is a condition where specific sounds trigger intense emotional responses, often leading to feelings of irritation or distress.”

Neuroscientists are still trying to figure out what’s behind misokinesia. They think it probably involves mirror neurons, which are a type of brain cell that play a critical role in understanding and imitating others’ behavior. Neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical impulses or chemical messengers. So, when you see someone else performing an action and think about doing it yourself, these mirror neurons tend to get activated.

For example, if you see someone eating a hot fudge sundae (and happen to like ice cream), the mirror neurons in your brain get activated as if you were taking a bite of this chocolatey treat. Mirror neurons are also involved when you wince after seeing someone bump their head or stub their toe. “In individuals with misokinesia, there may be a heightened sensitivity or altered processing within this mirror neuron system, leading to discomfort,” Dr. Nelson explains.

Do certain moods make it worse?

Research has yet to confirm whether a person’s mood or emotional state affects how intensely they experience misokinesic reactions, Jaswal says. However, she and Dr. Nelson agree it makes intuitive sense that certain emotions can increase your discomfort when seeing someone else fidget. “Heightened stress, anxiety, or irritability might amplify the discomfort experienced when witnessing triggering movements,” Dr. Nelson says.

For instance, when I was taking my test, the combination of performance anxiety and time pressure likely added to my stress level—and how much my peer's bouncing leg bothered me. Other factors like fatigue can also lower your ability to tolerate negative emotions, Dr. Nelson says. For instance, when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, you might feel irritable which, in turn, makes you more susceptible to being triggered by someone’s repetitive movements.

Is there anything we can do to manage misokinesia?

In her research on misokinesia, Jaswal found that people who reported high levels of this visual sensitivity tended to use techniques “that would either block their field of vision or remove themselves from the situation so they would not have to see the visual triggers.” These coping strategies provide some relief, but it’s not always possible to leave or block out triggers without drawing attention to yourself.

Fortunately, there are other strategies you can use to manage distress caused by misokinesia. Some people benefit from practicing mindfulness techniques like deep breathing and grounding exercises. “Developing an awareness of your triggers and the accompanying emotional responses can be a first step in managing misokinesia,” Dr. Nelson says.

Jaswal and Dr. Nelson both recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, which focus on learning to recognize unhelpful behaviors and developing confidence in your ability to solve problems. CBT can help with changing negative thought patterns associated with misokinesia and help alleviate emotional distress. An example would be recognizing a negative thought like “I can’t focus while she’s tapping her foot” and replacing it with more soothing self-talk like “I’ve prepared for this job interview, and I just need to take it one question at a time. Her foot has no bearing on my talents and abilities.”

Since misokinesia can affect a person’s quality of life or enjoyment of social activities, it’s worth seeking help from a mental health professional to discuss strategies or therapies to help reduce the intensity of misokinesic reactions if you find them getting in the way of your daily life. For example, a therapist might recommend an intervention that involves “gradual exposure to triggering movements, in controlled settings, to help desensitize the brain's response over time,” Dr. Nelson says.

Keep in mind that there’s nothing inherently bad or harmful about experiencing misokinesia. It simply shows the complexity of our brains and how they respond to ordinary stimuli in unique and sometimes unexpected—if not always pleasant—ways.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Jaswal, Sumeet M. et al “Misokinesia Is a Sensitivity to Seeing Others Fidget That Is Prevalent in the General Population.” Scientific Reports, vol. 11, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-96430-4.
  2. Ferrer-Torres, Antonia, and Lydia Giménez-Llort. “Misophonia: A Systematic Review of Current and Future Trends in This Emerging Clinical Field.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 19,11 6790. 1 Jun. 2022, doi:10.3390/ijerph19116790

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