As the coronavirus outbreak nears pandemic levels, experts have been sharing the same advice for individuals looking to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19: Wash your hands and don’t touch your face.
While the former is simple enough, the latter poses more of a challenge. Basically, it’s pretty damn hard to stop touching your face.
A small 2015 study highlighted the frightening frequency of hand-to-face contact in individuals. Researchers filmed 26 medical students at a lecture and counted how many times they touched their faces. On average, each of the students touched their face 23 times in one hour ― with 44% fo those contacts involving a mucous membrane like the mouth, nose or eyes.
Touching your face, especially around your mucous membranes, makes it much easier for viruses and bacteria to enter your body, infect you and turn you into a host to further spread disease.
“It also causes acne, so break the habit for beauty. And someone touching their face incessantly appears less confident, attentive, and present than someone who is not,” said Sanam Hafeez, a psychologist in New York.
To help people cut back on their face-touching, HuffPost spoke to Hafeez and other experts to identify some techniques that may help with the seemingly impossible task.
Keep Track Of Your Face-Touching Habits
The first step to breaking or altering a habit is to develop a strong awareness of when and why you engage in this behavior. For something like nail-biting or face-touching, it can be an impulsive thing done out of boredom, anxiety or a sensory need.
“Most people touch their faces mindlessly,” explained Paul Hokemeyer, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of “Fragile Power.” “They rub their eyes or grab their lips when they’re confused. They bite their fingernails when they’re nervous. The central feature of these actions is that they occur below the level of our conscious mind and evolve from the most primitive part of our biology known as the limbic system.”
Try to become hyperaware of your habits and identify your triggers in order to insert a hard stop between the motivation and the action.
“It is key to spend a day noting time and place for your touching your face,” said Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California. “This may be when you are reading, driving, zoning out, under stress, etc.”
Try To Touch Something Else
“Free hands can be roaming hands,” Hafeez noted. “Because we tend to touch our faces when we’re doing things like reading or watching TV, we should try to occupy our hands with something else when we’re engaging in these activities.”
The best way to break a habit is to replace it with something incompatible, said Denise Cummins, a cognitive scientist who researches thinking and decision-making.
“If you typically lean your face on your hand, try to develop the habit of holding something in your hand ― such as a ‘worry ball’ ― or crossing your hands over your forearms,” Cummins said. “These actions are incompatible with leaning your face on your hand.”
Substitute one soothing behavior (touching your face) with another (squeezing a stress ball). DePompo recommended placing fidget spinners, small plush toys, and other “squeezy” objects in the places where you do the most face-touching, like your car, nightstand, bathroom sink and desk. Be sure to regularly and properly disinfect these objects as well.
Make It Uncomfortable
Another way to break the habit of touching your face is to make it uncomfortable.
“If you tend to lean your face on your hand when you’re reading things on your computer, try wearing wool or nubby fingerless gloves that feel unpleasant when held against the delicate skin on your face,” Cummins suggested.
Although gloves can become contaminated over time and should be washed, researchers believe viruses don’t live as long on soft materials, compared to hard surfaces.
Wearing glasses is a way to create a barrier between your eyes and your hands. And it tends to be less comfortable to lean on your face when you’re wearing glasses. At least one study has shown that women are less likely to touch their faces when wearing makeup as well. If nail-biting is your issue, consider using a bad-tasting polish to make yourself stop.
Put Up Reminders
It’s easy to forget that you’re trying to kick a habit as you go through your day, but setting little reminders may help boost your awareness and efforts.
“Cognitive-behavioral techniques such as a post-it on your computer screen saying ‘DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE’ and having colleagues remind and even penalize each other is another way to reduce face touching,” Hafeez said. You can also set periodic phone alarms or calendar alerts.
Face-touching is often a nervous habit related to anxiety.
“When we’re anxious, we tend to touch ourselves to soothe ourselves. We put our hands on our face, run our hands through our hair, cross our arms, and so on,” Cummins noted.
Practicing mindfulness habits like intentional breathing and meditation can help you cut down on these behaviors and manage anxiety in general. Cummins is a proponent of “vagal breathing,” an exercise which can stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem down the abdomen.
“The vagal system facilitates the body’s rest, repair and digest functions,” she said. “You can stimulate the vagus nerve using this technique: Make sure your torso is straight and open ― no slouching ― so that you can breathe deeply into your abdomen. Breathe in through your nose for four to five seconds, allowing your belly to expand while your chest remains quiet, then exhale for four to five seconds, allowing your belly to relax.”
This exercise can help reduce stress responses and increase higher level thinking and emotion regulation, thus reducing the emotional triggers that cause many people to frequently touch their faces.
Use Rewards Or Punishments
If you need a higher level of intervention, rewards and punishments can incentivize you to take control of your face-touching habits.
“One main way to reverse the habit and make you more aware and accountable is the ‘hand-stretch,’” DePompo explained. “Once you catch yourself face-touching, the rule would be you extend all the fingers of that hand for no less than 2 and a half to three minutes. It will be uncomfortable but not harmful. This will train you to be VERY aware of your hands and will in a short time keep your hands at bay.”
Hokemeyer suggested giving yourself immediate rewards for incremental changes you successfully implement.
“Allow yourself to binge on a television show, eat a bowl of popcorn or buy a new shade of fingernail polish,” he said. “Nothing brings change to old behaviors like new rewards.”
He also touted the value of accountability buddies like a friend, colleague or partner. “Ask them to bring your face-touching behaviors to your attention when you do it,” he said.
Still, you don’t want to let it harm your relationship with that person. “Certainly the best way to do this is with a degree of humor and lightheartedness,” Hokemeyer added.
Be Realistic About Your Goal
Don’t be hard on yourself if you still continue to touch your face during the day.
“It took years to form so expecting to quit cold turkey is not only impractical, it sets us up for failure,” Hafeez said. “Expect to reduce it over time. If you touch your face five times an hour, make it two or three … until it becomes two to three times a day.”
Hokemeyer highlighted the importance of making incremental shifts, rather than quick, radical behavioral changes.
“You’ll need to honor the fact that changing a habit takes time and practice. You’ll be amazed and hopefully amused at how deeply embedded and persistent these reactions are in your psyche,” he said. “You’ll also find that changing can be exhausting and frustrating. So easy does it. These behaviors didn’t evolve over night and they won’t be changed overnight either.”
Focus On What You Can Control More Easily
Because changing your face-touching habits requires time and effort, it’s important to also focus on the protective measures you can easily take today.
“I think it’s probably more important to keep your hands clean than to stop touching your face,” said Brad Stulberg, a performance coach and researcher. “It’s much easier to remember to wash your hands since you can pair that with certain daily activities ― like going to the bathroom and eating, which most people do a few times a day. If your hands are clean, then touching your face isn’t such a big deal.”
He also emphasized other healthy behaviors that will benefit individuals and their communities amid a global health crisis. These include getting a flu shot, exercising, eating healthy foods, not smoking and getting seven to nine hours of sleep at night.
“This is a good time for people to think about why they are so scared of coronavirus and adopt healthy behaviors that might keep them healthy in other areas of their life,” Stulberg said. ”It’s not that this doesn’t have the potential to be serious, it’s just that outside of regular hand-washing there’s not much anyone can do. So channel some of that nervous energy into the behavior changes that we KNOW help keep you healthy and alive for a long time.”