Judiann Wilson, 64, can’t fall asleep until she sucks her thumb. “I have been a thumb-sucker practically all of my life. I tried stopping the habit several times, but I always circle back to it.” When Judiann first got married, she feared that her husband, Rodney, would find out about her lifelong secret. “I remember waiting until Rodney was snoring and then sucking my thumb, so that I could lull myself to sleep,” Judiann laughingly recalls. It wasn’t until the couple’s second year of marriage that the jig was up. “Thank God Rodney was sympathetic to my habit even though at first, he thought it was hilarious!”

Approximately, more than one in ten adults secretly suck their thumbs; it is estimated that twice as many women do it as men. As a matter of fact, even singer Rihanna was reportedly spotted sucking her thumb publicly. Clinicians state that most adults who indulge in the silent phenomenon are successful with responsible careers.

Many people who describe the feeling that thumb-sucking provides state, that it soothes, consolidates emotions, and allows them to get a grip on their daily stresses; it also relaxes them at bedtime. Many doctors agree that an adult thumb-sucker is no different than someone who bites their nails, twirls strands of hair, or chews on plastic pens. Even though the practice is also not viewed as psychologically damaging or outright disgusting, it can become problematic if the habit isolates a person from being with others.

Although seemingly harmless, thumb-sucking can actually also lead to a host of health-related issues such as protruding/misaligned teeth, an open bite (upon closing the mouth there is a gap between the upper and lower front teeth), and a poorly developed lower jaw and narrow palate. Other problems thumb-suckers may face include deformity of the thumb, and speech problems like lisping. Thumb-suckers are, in addition, typically more prone to infections such as impetigo around the mouth (i.e., a highly contagious bacterial infection of the surface layers of the skin, which causes sores and blisters), and paronychia of the thumb (i.e., a skin infection that occurs around the nails).

How can you put the brakes on your thumb-sucking habit once and for all? Clinicians who have researched the subject of thumb-sucking believe that in order to stop the practice, you must first understand your motives for engaging in it.

Want to try breaking the thumb-sucking habit?

Journaling. Record in a journal what was going on at the time of your thumb-sucking. Were you stressed, or upset during the time you needed to put that thumb in your mouth? Being aware of the circumstances surrounding the practice may help you gain some measure of control over it.

Try a few deterrents. Resorting to physical deterrents might also help you avoid putting the thumb in your mouth. Thumb rings can help make sucking more difficult. Wearing a sock or a glove on your preferred thumb-sucking hand might discourage you from sucking, especially if you do so in your sleep or absent-mindedly. There are thumb-sucking guards like TGuard AeroThumb, a clear mold that covers only your thumb that is ergonomic and ventilated.

Stress reducers. If you suck your thumb to calm yourself down, try doing deep breathing or yoga exercises. Aromatherapy has worked wonders as a stress management coping technique. Walk around a flower shop and take in the delightful fragrances that surround you. Lavender, vanilla, bergamot and a number of other fragrances are said to be effective stress reducers. You can get these fragrances through scented candles, aromatherapy diffusers with essential oils, or a variety of other products.

Occupy your mouth. Since sucking has a calming effect try doing so with a lollipop, stick of gum, or piece of hard candy, these can all provide a similar sensation.

A hand fidget toy. If you need to keep your hands busy, try playing with a tactile fidget toy that will keep your thumb from heading for your mouth. Fidget toys relieve stress and anxiety, they help focus, and are just for plain fun. Stress balls, putty, squishy and squeezy objects are helpful because they’re soothing, calming, and enjoyable to fidget with.

Seek help. Oftentimes, anxiety is at the root of thumb-sucking for adults. If you feel your thumb-sucking habit is driven by stress and anxiousness, seek the services of a therapist, who can help center you.

Avoid negative reinforcement. Never apply awful tasting substances to your thumb just to avoid sucking it. Experts state that using such aggressive tactics will only shame you, which is something you should never be made to feel.

Give yourself time. Habits cannot be corrected overnight! It may take a while to try and correct a lifelong behavior. So don’t be hard on yourself if you slip up as you try to wean yourself away from thumb-sucking; just keep moving towards your goal of stopping.