Stimming, ADHD, & What You Can Do About It

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 12/28/2020

Stimming is an extremely common behavior among people of all ages, races, abilities, personalities, and backgrounds. In fact, there is a good chance you have experienced stimming recently, whether you have a medical condition or not.

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While stimming does not guarantee someone has a neurodevelopmental disorder, it is generally more prevalent and excessive in people with ADHD diagnoses. It is not always dangerous and does not always pose harm to the individual and their surroundings, but it certainly affects their lives in various.

So, what is stimming?

Many people refer to stimming as self-stimulatory behavior because it involves unique patterns of movements, behaviors, and actions designed to help the individual seek pleasure. Many people use it to ease the cope, fear, focus, nervousness, frustration, and even boredom.

There are so many different ways to experience stemming, and there is a variety of reasons why someone might stim. For example, some people stim by twirling their hair when talking to someone they have a crush on. Simultaneously, some people stim by biting the inside of their cheek when nervous or focused.

Let us look at an extensive list of stimming examples to give you a deeper understanding of what is considered stimming:

  • Whistling, humming, or repeating words when trying to focus or concentrate.
  • Pacing back and forth when nervous or anxious about something.
  • Scratching, itching, or rubbing certain areas of the body or items to calm the mind.
  • Biting your nails, sucking on your thumb, and chewing on objects when tense or uneasy.
  • Banging, tapping, or fidgeting with objects or surfaces to ease the nerves.
  • Blinking excessively, slapping yourself, and even hitting yourself in response to emotion.
  • Rocking back and forth, banging your head, or swaying to tune-out the outside world.

While stimming is voluntary to a certain extent, it is often acted out in response to a specific emotion that causes us to feel uncomfortable or uneasy at that given point in time. It does this by using the body’s senses to distract the individual from causing the emotion.

One of the most modern examples of stimming is using a tool or device called a fidget spinner. These started to gain popularity among millennials in 2017, but they have been around for several decades and give the individual something to ‘fidget’ with when they start to feel overwhelmed.

Tics vs. Stimming vs. Compulsions

When most people hear the definition of ‘stimming,’ they immediately compare it to tics and compulsions. While they bear a striking resemblance to each other, they refer to three completely different behaviors that must be understood when diagnosing them.

We have already discussed what stimming is and gave some powerful examples of stimming, but how do they differ from tics and compulsions?

Let us first look at attics, which are often diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome when experienced for longer than a year. They refer to sudden, repetitive, and random muscle movements that result in a jolt of the body or awkward noise. This might sound like stimming, but tics are involuntary and cannot be controlled. They happen without warning, and there is rarely a reason behind it.

Compulsions, on the other hand, are often diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. They refer to behaviors associated with repetitive, obsessive thoughts. For example, tapping and double-checking things excessively are known as compulsions.

The main difference between a compulsion and stimming is that compulsions are generally acted out with purpose or meaning behind it (beyond satisfying an emotion) and generally cause more stress in the individual.

Understanding the difference between tics, stimming, and compulsions is essential when diagnosing the behavior and finding the right treatment. While tics are typically associated with Tourette’s syndrome and compulsions are typically associated with OCD, stimming is typically associated with ADHD and autism.

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That being said, that does not mean individuals have any of these disorders just because they experience a tic, compulsion, or stim. That is why you should always speak with a doctor before rushing to any assumptions -- especially since assumptions can lead to more fear, more concern, and higher stress levels.

The Stimming-ADHD Connection

As we have mentioned earlier, stimming is often prevalent in children and young adults with ADHD, one of the world's world's most common neurodevelopmental disorders. ADHD has affected over 6.4 million children aged 4-17 years old, with nearly 6.1% of children being treated for it.

When it comes to ADHD, there are three significant symptoms the patient experiences -- inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Some individuals only experience one symptom, while other individuals experience multiple or all three symptoms.

As we learn more about ADHD, we learn more about the different ways these individuals cope with these symptoms. While it is not always a logical or feasible way of seeking pleasure when suffering from ADHD, many people use stimming to calm themselves down.

For example, some people with ADHD stim by tapping their foot or their finger when they start to feel anxious, uneasy, or bored. Other people stim by humming or interrupting others when they start to talk. Young children may have difficulty sitting still or relaxing.

One important note about stimming and ADHD is that the two are not 100% synonymous with one another. While they are often prevalent with each other, there is no guaranteed link. Keep in mind that that that everyone stims daily, and a majority of us do it out of habit -- not because we have ADHD.

Can You Receive Help For Stimming?

Stimming is entirely normal behavior to most, but some people take it a step too far. When the stimming becomes excessive and starts to cause issues or cause complications in your life, it is recommended you seek treatment to relieve yourself of the symptoms.

In the past, many people believed stimming was a negative behavior that needed to be punished. In fact, some people would recommend spanking the individual or igniting some form of negative emotion when stimming was experienced to slowly teach the individual to stop. Of course, this is not an effective solution and is highly frowned upon today.

Instead, stimming requires a different approach because children, young adults, and adults should be allowed to stim -- especially when it doesn’t cause any harm the individual or their surroundings. Since it is an effective coping mechanism for stress and anxiety, it would be wrong to take it away.

With that being said, we must learn how to manage it to ensure it does not get out of hand. This is where therapy plays a major role in addressing the underlying causes, understanding the dangers of excessive stimming, and finding new stimming behaviors that create the same effect with minimal damage.

Two major therapy types are essential when stimming becomes problematic to the individual and their loved ones -- family therapy (group therapy) and individual therapy. Let us take a closer look at both:

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  1. Individual Therapy - when meeting with a therapist, the individual learns to develop different coping strategies with the stress or anxiety they feel daily. Instead of engaging in negative or damaging stimming behaviors, therapists shift that energy to a more effective and healing stimming behavior to ignite true pleasure, ultimately what the individual is seeking.
  2. Family Therapy - when meeting with a therapist, the family learns valuable and useful strategies for helping their loved one manage their symptoms. While the family members aren’t suffering from excessive stimming themselves, they must know how it affects their loved ones and what they can do about it. It’s also essential the family members provide the right environment for the individual, especially when living together.

At the end of the day, everyone needs to understand when stimming is normal behavior and problematic behavior. Since it can cause an enormous amount of distress in someone’s life, early detection is one of the best models for success.

In some cases, doctors will recommend the use of medication to help relieve the symptoms. This is often a last case scenario considered when replacement behaviors and therapy sessions do not solve the issue as planned.

How Can Mind Diagnostics Assist You?

One of the biggest concerns is that when someone starts to experience excessive or harmful stimming behaviors, it is due to ADHD or some other neurodevelopmental disorder. Although not the case in all children and young adults, it is always best to rule it out as early as possible -- even before it becomes inconvenient.

At Mind Diagnostics, we take great pride in our mission to help end the stigma behind mental health issues and mental disorders experienced by millions worldwide. When it comes to ADHD, things are no different.

We have created an extensive online ADHD test to help you determine your risk for developing ADHD -- if not already developed. As a result, we have become a trusted and effective ‘middle man’ between those who need help and those ready to help.

Whether you are concerned about their own behavior or someone concerned about their loved one’s behavior, we urge you to take our online ADHD test today. If you feel a therapist is needed for further evaluation, we have the resources to help you with that as well.

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Together, your stimming does not have to become disruptive, and we can help you find the right treatment for any other ADHD symptoms you might be suffering from.

NOTES: no changes needed.

  • Does not go against what is clinically accepted.
  • Does not encourage mindsets or practices that may be harmful to the reader.
  • Is factual and up-to-date.