Anxiety tics are sudden, involuntary movements and vocalizations that result from anxiety episodes. They aren’t always preventable, but strategies to manage stress, promote relaxation, and orient you toward positive thinking may help.

A tic is an involuntary movement or vocalization that may be recurrent or sudden and has no specific pattern or purpose. Tics that involve motor functions are called motor tics, while vocal tics involve words or sounds.

Tics may vary from person to person. They can affect any area of the body but often involve the face, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.

Common motor tics include eye blinking, head jerking, and lip twitching. Complex tics may involve coordinated gestures. Coughing, grunting, and throat clearing are common vocal tics, and some people may repeat words or use expressions that may be considered offensive.

While tics are often associated with neurological disorders like Tourette syndrome (TS), they can also occur for other reasons. Tics that appear only when you’re feeling anxious are known as anxiety or nervous tics.

No. Tics may have causes other than anxiety episodes. Also, tics aren’t a formal symptom of anxiety and are not part of the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders. Not everyone with anxiety experiences nervous tics.

Anxiety tics occur when your body’s stress response is engaged, causing unusual signals in your brain that result in involuntary movements and vocalizations.

Experts believe anxiety tics may be associated with unusual dopamine signaling in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain made up of interconnected clusters of nerve cells. The basal ganglia is involved in both motor control (movements) and the stress response.

What triggers anxiety tics?

Anxiety itself is the underlying trigger if you live with anxiety tics. The more anxious you feel, the more intense your tics may become. Panic attacks, for example, are situations of intense, impairing anxiety where you may notice increased tic activity.

Triggers for anxiety tics are personal and involve any circumstances you perceive as highly stressful. For example:

  • high demand job responsibilities
  • loss of a loved one or other major personal loss
  • chronic fatigue
  • severe illness
  • overwhelming social situations
  • major life transitions

The exact impact of diet on anxiety tics isn’t clear, but research suggests certain foods, like caffeine and refined sugar, may also increase tic-related symptoms in conditions like Tourette syndrome.

According to a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis, caffeine intake at the equivalent of 5 cups of coffee daily can increase feelings of anxiety as well as the frequency of panic attacks. If you tend to experience anxiety tics, caffeine may be a trigger for you.

Anxiety tics versus functional tic-like behavior

Anxiety tics aren’t the same as functional tic-like behaviors. The latter involves abrupt and sudden vocal and motor tics that may present for hours or days, and don’t appear to have underlying neurological causes.

While both involve heightened anxiety, anxiety tics are believed to stem directly from physiological changes in your stress response. Functional tic-like behaviors seem to be part of a broader experience of cumulative psychological distress, occurring alongside other symptoms.

Oftentimes, tic-like behavior episodes have no tell-tale early signs or preceding emotions and are typically described as a “surge of energy.”

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When an anxiety-related tic episode happens, it may only last seconds to minutes. During times of heightened anxiety or stress, however, tic episodes may happen back-to-back or repetitively.

Without effective anxiety management strategies, you may experience tics throughout life.

Anxiety treatment can relieve tics and other related symptoms.

You can experience anxiety tics and not have a tic disorder diagnosis. Tic disorders involve specific criteria outlined in clinical guidebooks like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

Tic disorders include:

Under the DSM-5-TR, you may receive a diagnosis of Tourette syndrome, for example, if tics have been present for at least 1 year since their initial onset. These tics aren’t limited to experiences of heightened anxiety, though elevated emotions can make them worse.

A Tourette syndrome diagnosis also requires experiencing both motor and vocal tics, with initial symptoms seen before the age of 18.

Anxiety tics aren’t a formal diagnosis and don’t have specific criteria. They’re acknowledged as a type of shared experience among some people living with anxiety, but they don’t meet the requirements to diagnose as a tic disorder.

Can you develop Tourette syndrome from anxiety?

Anxiety is not a recognized cause of Tourette syndrome. TS is a neurological disorder present from childhood and is thought to be influenced by genetics, environmental factors, and changes to the brain’s structure and function.

While experiencing anxiety won’t lead to TS, stress may influence the severity of TS symptoms. A study from 2023 notes that stress related to family and personal relationships and school was associated with increased severity of tics in children with TS.

Anxiety tics might be involuntary, but their occurrence may be managed with stress reduction techniques, medications, and therapy.

To cope with anxiety tics in the moment, consider using these strategies:

  • Distraction: Focus on something other than the tic and what’s causing anxiety, like music.
  • Breathing exercises: Structured breathing, like box breathing, can help calm your mind and promote relaxation.
  • Visualization: Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a safe, peaceful setting. Focus on the details.
  • Affirmations: Repeat positive statements to yourself, like “I am safe,” to relieve anxious thoughts.
  • Moving around: Redirect your mind and body’s energy by doing something active, like going for a walk.

Tic prevention and long-term management often require a proactive approach to everyday anxiety reduction, positive habit formation, and care for underlying physiological factors.

Medications like antipsychotics and alpha-adrenergic agonists can help regulate neurotransmitters in your brain. Psychotherapy frameworks improve coping skills, modify behavior, and restructure unhelpful patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety.

Lifestyle habits that promote stress reduction, like regular exercise or mindfulness meditation, can support the effectiveness of medications and therapy.

Not everyone living with anxiety tics requires medical intervention. You may be able to successfully manage tics through self-directed stress reduction and relaxation practices.

Anxiety tics aren’t an official diagnosis, but they do describe a shared experience among some people with anxiety episodes. Emerging as a result of your body’s stress response, anxiety tics are involuntary, sudden movements or vocalizations.

Developing long-term and in-the-moment stress coping strategies can help anxiety-related tics, but medication and therapy might also be part of an effective management plan.

Tics that appear when anxiety isn’t present and persist for more than a year may be an indicator of a tic disorder. Speaking with a neurologist or a mental health professional can help determine if you’re experiencing anxiety tics or a formal neurological disorder.