For me, it’s a circular motion with my right foot. Moving only from the ankle, it swivels around and around, my pointed toe tracing a counterclockwise path through the air. This is my anxious habit. I knew for years that I did it, but I had considered it an innocent, idle movement of no significance. Then one day my husband both pointed it out and explained it all at once: “I can tell you’re feeling uncomfortable. You’re doing that thing with your foot.”
In the days and weeks following her middle son’s death from leukemia, writer Catharine Murray shared, during a recent talk with my hospital’s division of pediatric hematology & oncology, she and her husband and surviving sons became (I’m paraphrasing here) a family of fidgeters. She had come to discuss her recently published book, Now You See the Sky and gamely answered our inquiries about shepherding her young family through the tragedy. In the wake of her son’s death, it seemed, these previously placid, mindful individuals (they were living in rural Thailand, farming the land, raising wild horses, existing in just about the most tranquil setting imaginable) began tapping their feet, twirling their hair, twitching and squirming without purpose or awareness of their movements. It seemed to be a physical way for their despair to manifest.
I began really thinking about stillness after a family meeting at work during which my team delivered a grave prognosis to a patient’s family. Afterwards, one of my colleagues said, “You sat so still during that meeting. I don’t think you moved at all.” I realized that that was not an accident. Whenever I meet with families and patients, whether to share unfortunate news or to discuss the details of a treatment plan, I try to set myself firmly in place and make only the movements necessary – to draw a diagram, share documents, deliver a box of tissues. Without truly thinking about it, I made the decision long ago that my fidgeting, my discomfort or nervousness, has no place in such a setting. I try my best to inhabit that space with families in a way that adds to their understanding and comfort and allows them to speak and feel and move in whatever ways they need, but that does not detract from or impinge upon their experience as they absorb the information.
Outside of work, however, that same stillness has proven more elusive. And now that I have grown aware of my own stillness – or lack thereof – its presence or absence feels amplified. When my foot bounces and spins, it feels like fireworks exploding in my brain: Something is wrong! You’re ruminating! Feel that tension!
At the same time, having been enlightened about my own nervous tics has its advantages. As the new year dawns, I cannot resolve to replace all of my fidgets with stillness. I can, however, pay attention. What I wish for us all in the coming year is the capacity to notice our tics and habits and to delve deeper to learn what drives them. This, I am finding, is the first step toward quieting both body and mind.