New relationship stressor: fidgeting

If seeing someone fidget makes you anxious, then you might have misokinesia (hatred of movements). Sumeet Jaswal and Todd Handy, PhD want to find out why one in three people have such a profound reaction to small, repetitive movements. They are leading an extended University of British Columbia (UBC) study on the topic to find out why misokinesia occurs.

“I started thinking about these issues about eight or nine years ago and got interested in misokinesia,” says Handy. “I was excited with Sumeet. I finally got a graduate student who was interested in pursuing this as part of their research.”

Handy is a professor with the Department of Psychology at UBC, and director of the university’s Attentional Neuroscience Lab. Studying misokinesia is the latest object of Handy’s research that includes neuroimaging, cognitive neuroscience, and mind wandering. Misokinesia is a condition when anxiety is triggered within individuals when they see people around them fidget.

Jaswal, a fourth year PhD student at UBC, specializing in cognitive psychology, is leading the study of misokinesia at UBC with the supervision and cooperation of Handy.

Misokinesia is common but largely unstudied

Jaswal says there are close similarities between misokinesia and misophonia, the latter being when anxiety is triggered by specific noises rather than specific physical actions.

Sumeet M. Jaswal, researcher at UBC’s Attentional Neuroscience Lab. | Photo courtesy of Attentional Neuroscience Lab

Affected by misophonia herself, Jaswal’s interest in studying misokinesia partially resulted from noticing those similarities.

“There’s certainly a lot of co-occurrence,” says Handy. “A lot of people who have misophonia also have misokinesia, which suggests there might be sort of a common underlying thing going on there.”

Handy notes people can also suffer from misophonia without being affected by misokinesia as well. He says this is one of the biggest questions going forward in the study.

Misokinesia is a condition relatively unknown to the population at-large. As of 2021, misokinesia even lacks a Wikipedia article. It is nonetheless a common condition. The study’s first publication, co-authored by Jaswal and Handy, suggested that one-third of people are affected by misokinesia.

Sumeet has conducted an extensive series of interviews with people self-reporting to be affected by misokinesia, termed misokinesics. Over 4,000 people have been part of the study thus far. One finding, which involves the interaction or manipulation of objects, shows what can trigger misokinesia in people and extends to both fidgeting as well as everyday behaviour.

“With self-reported misokinesics for a new study, when asked about the visual movements that trigger them, the answers seem to be either human fidgeting behavior like foot tapping, hair twirling, and object manipulation like pen tapping,” says Jaswal.

Handy and Jaswal’s study revealed fidgeting specifically affects people who have misokinesia. Other repetitive physical movements like playing the drums or typing does not affect misokinesics, but specific parts of the body will trigger the condition.

“Some people are triggered by others fidgeting with their feet, others will be triggered by someone twirling their hair,” says Jaswal.

Social impact of misokinesia

The study has also shown that older people are more greatly affected than others. How age can affect misokinesics is something that Jaswal and Handy want to discover in the future.

Todd C. Handy, director of UBC’s Attentional Neuroscience Lab. | Photo courtesy of Attentional Neuroscience Lab

“It seems that the onset of misokinesia is in early adolescence,” says Jaswal. “That is something we definitely would like to know more about.”

Some of the importance in studying misokinesia is derived from how it impacts everyday life. The social aspect of misokinesia is what Jaswal considers to be its worst impact.

“Misokinesia seems to have a serious social impact,” says Jaswal. “It influences the way individuals learn, work, and socialize.”

“To draw an analogy with misophonia, some people can have sensitivities to non-human based sounds in misophonia,” says Handy. “That raises the possibility there are people out there who could be challenged just by some sort of repetitive stimulus in their visual environment that might be distracting.”

The feedback from subjects and those paying attention to the study have pleased Jaswal.

“It has been very rewarding listening to people reach out via email or our website,” says Jaswal. “They tell us they feel validated by our study and say, ‘It’s so nice to see that I am not alone.’”

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