Keeping your hands off your face is easier said than done. That’s what many people are learning as health care professionals urge the public to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Whether it’s scratching an itch or resting our chins in our hands, the coronavirus outbreak has made many of us aware of the urge to reach for our faces — and we do it a lot. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control observed a group of medical students touching their faces an average 23 times an hour.

“It’s just an activity we do that we don’t even think about,” said Cynthia Weston, an assistant professor in Texas A&M University’s College of Nursing. “You feel like your hair’s in your eyes, so you go to brush it away, or you feel tired and you rub your eyes or your nose itches.”

Weston said communicable infections such as the coronavirus are spread through droplets that are mobilized when a person coughs, sneezes or laughs. Those organisms fall on surfaces in the area of the infected person. The next person who touches the surface — like an elevator button, doorknob or keyboard — picks up the virus on their hands.

This is why health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend people wash their hands often and avoid face-touching. Touching facial mucous membranes — the nose, eyes and mouth — gives the virus a source of entry, Weston said.

It’s simple way to protect ourselves from infection, but the advice can be tough to follow. In a video that was shared widely last week, a California health official was shown touching her face while she dispensed the advice at a news conference.

So how do you break a habit that you might not even do consciously?

Brian Anderson, an assistant professor in Texas A&M’s department of psychological and brain sciences, is an expert on habits, specifically how people learn to associate objects with outcomes that are either good or bad and how that influences behavior. The phenomenon he studies is a nonconscious habit in the oculomotor system — something people aren’t necessarily thinking about until they look at an object.

He said there are common threads between what he studies and habits that people aren’t aware of, like face-touching. The key is understanding that it’s not something that happens randomly, Anderson said.

“For touching your face, you tend to do that when you are in certain situations or feel a certain way,” Anderson said. “So if you feel bored, if you feel very empathetic in the context of a conversation, you may lean forward and put your hand in your chin. The first step for somebody trying to overcome a habit is to raise your consciousness.”

To start, people should try to identify the kinds of situations or experiences that motivate them to touch their face. There will be variations day by day, but the urge will be much stronger under certain circumstances. People rub their eyes when they’re tired, for example, or rest their chin in their hands during meetings or lectures.

People have to appreciate that they will always be habit-driven creatures, Anderson said, and what he calls “white-knuckling” won’t be enough to kick the habit.

“That has some utility in the short term, but it’s ultimately not going to be a long-term solution,” Anderson said. “Consciously rehearsing, ‘OK, don’t do it,’ you’re actively thinking about it and monitoring your behavior. That only works when you’re devoting conscious resources to doing that, and that won’t be the majority of the time.”

If you know what your triggers are, you can more actively monitor the habit. It’s an important first step, but if people really want to curb face-touching, they need to develop new habits to engage in when they find themselves fighting the urge, Anderson said.

“To make your life as easy as possible, you want that habit to be somewhat similar, but safer,” he said. “If you have a tendency to rub your eyes, maybe take a clean handkerchief with you and pull that out to rub your eyes, and then clean it at the end of the day.”

People can also rest the sides of their heads against their fingers rather than putting their chin in their hands, he said. Their hands would still be coming into close contact but would not be near a mucous membrane.

“You can retrain new habits, and if you want to make your life as easy as possible, try to make those new habits at least similar to your old habits so they can still fulfill the same basic drive,” Anderson said. Don’t expect a new habit to become automatic any time soon, though. Realistically, Anderson said this could take weeks to more than a month. Habits become stronger and more ingrained the more people engage with them. The recency effect will help, but people will still need to overcome a strong history of touching their faces thousands of times throughout their lives.

“You need to build up a lot of experience to make it automatic,” he said. “Probably multiple hundreds of times. Within two or three weeks, hopefully you’ll start to feel some gravity toward your new habit. It’s not going to be fully automatic, but within a few weeks expect it to become a little bit easier.”

Until then, Weston urges people to practice good hand hygiene and wipe down shared surfaces.

“Hand-washing sounds so simple, but that really is going to be the absolute best way to prevent the spread of any of these infections,” she said.

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