The anxious leg bounce: Why it happens and how to deal with it

You’re either a leg bouncer or someone who gets intensely irritated by leg bouncing. There’s rarely an in-between.

Leg bouncing, also called leg tapping, leg jiggling, leg shaking, and ‘that annoying thing you do with your leg’ describes the habit of moving one leg up and down at speed while sitting.

It can happen when sitting on public transport, at work, or at home, watching TV.

It can be subtle or powerful enough to make the entire bank of desks in the office feel the tremors.

Very often, it’s linked to anxiety.

You’ll find leg shakes a commonly referenced symptom of anxiety disorders, or a sign that you’re feeling stressed and aren’t aware of it.

I’m a leg bouncer. At work I’m always either sitting with my legs up on the chair in a pretzel-like position, or my feet are on the floor but my right leg is furiously shuddering. It can be going for ages without me noticing, until I can suddenly feel the shakes all along my desk.

I’ve noticed other people leg bouncing too, from the movement I can feel on the ground, so it’s clearly not a habit that’s easily ignored. When I brought the tic up in a chat at work, multiple people responded with how infuriating they find it when they could feel someone rapidly shaking their leg, saying the tremors make them want to hit their deskmate’s leg.

Why does leg bouncing happen? Why is it more common among those experiencing anxiety? And how can you stop it – or, if you’re part of the intensely irritated party, get someone else to bloody well keep their leg still?

Counselling Directory member Dawn Templeton says that leg tapping is caused by ‘a buildup of surplus stress hormones in the body, namely adrenaline and cortisol’.

‘When we are stressed or feeling anxious, our bodies prepare us to fight the stress, or run away from it, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response,’ Dawn explains. ‘This means that we are flooded with extra energy.

‘Leg tapping can also become habitual, so that it starts to happen even when not serving a function to reduce anxiety. In this case it takes time to alter the habit, but finding someone or some way of prompting you to notice when it is happening is the first step, and making a conscious effort to stop once it is noticed.

‘It might be that you take up another, less obvious form of fidgeting (such as pencil twirling) but that might come with its own drawbacks.’

It’s handy to find another outlet for that excess physical energy.

‘Jiggling is a sign that you should be doing something physical,’ says Michael. ‘It’s not in our nature to sit for long, as we like to get out and do things and be active and move.

‘Shaking and jiggling means we should be doing something physical or practical to use up this extra energy.’

If you’re not already exercising outside of work, get to it – all those people banging on about endorphins have a point. Finding a physical activity you love can reduce stress and boost your mood as well as reducing your leg shakes.

While you’re bound to your desk, try to get up and walk about every hour or so – whether that’s making a cup of tea or walking over to someone’s desk rather than sending them a Slack message. Little bursts of activity are an excellent habit to get into.

If you’re on the other side of leg tapping habit, silently raging as your anxious deskmate rids you of all focus, the best thing to do is have a chat with the leg bouncer in question. It’s likely they’re unaware they’re doing it, and if you don’t bring up your anguish the tension will build, simmer, and eventually boil over.

Dawn advises approaching the topic gently and asking if the person bouncing their leg needs help reducing stress: ‘It is helpful to gently point it out and make them aware that it could be a sign that they are too stressed and need to look after themselves.’

Catherine agrees, and adds that a sneaky way of ridding people of the habit is to suggest going for a walk or moving about. We should all be sitting less and moving more, so make it your job to get everyone up and about.

But ultimately, sometimes those negative tics just won’t budge. Like we said, a leg-bouncer isn’t doing themselves any harm, and anxiety isn’t something you can just switch off at a moment’s notice.

Offer support, flag it when it’s happening, but if someone’s leg bouncing is driving you round the bend, your best option may just be to move desks. Sorry.

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