Brain; COVID; Mental Health

Why we touch our faces so much – and how to break the habit

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Why do we touch our faces so much? It is instinctual, and can be a soothing mechanism. That also makes it more difficult to resist during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Don’t touch your face.” The mantra has become a common refrain during the COVID-19 pandemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials, TV doctors, and infectious disease experts repeat the advice in hopes of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

COVID-19 is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets, but you can also contract it by touching surfaces where it lands. The virus reportedly can live for several hours in the air and approximately two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces.

The eyes, nose, and mouth are direct openings through which viruses can pass. Every time you touch something, you risk re-contaminating your hands. And every time you touch your hands to your face, you increase the risk of infection.

But keeping our hands off our faces is easier said than done. In fact, a recent study found that we touch our eyes, nose, and mouth more than 20 times an hour. It is a natural tendency – something we start doing even before we’re born. 

Why can’t we unhand our faces?

  • It starts in the womb: The instinct to touch our faces begins in utero, according to several studies. Some research suggests it is a sign of healthy development. It is also the first sign of sensory nerves developing in the face.
  • Involuntary response: Touching our faces is a reflex. When we have an itch, it triggers a response in the brain that tells us to scratch. Itching is a protective response to relieve what the brain considers a temporary form of pain.

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  • Unconscious habit: Like biting your nails, touching your face can become a habit. Do it enough and it may become learned by a part of your brain called the basal ganglia, which is thought to control and store desired movements.
  • A form of communication: We express ourselves by touching our faces. When we’re surprise or scared, we might put our hands over our mouths. When we’re concentrating or listening intently, a hand might end up under our chin.
  • A hands-on coping mechanism: Touching our faces is a calming mechanism that engages the senses. The face is very sensitive to touch, as are the hands and fingers. Unlike many other areas of the body, touching the face and digits in close but separate areas (like the cheek vs. the nose) feels different because each engages a specific area of the brain’s cerebral cortex, causing a unique sensation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we probably need more soothing than normal, which makes it particularly difficult to resist touching our faces. Also, humans are automatically prone to want to do something we are told we can’t. Constant warnings to “avoid touching your face” may actually feed the urge to do it more often.

So how do you stop, or at least limit this behavior? Start by becoming hyper-aware of the problem, and then be mindful of certain sensory strategies that will help you keep your hands off your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Creative ways to distract your hands

Sight and sound reminders 

Put a ring (or rubber band) on it: The virus is a good excuse to break out a piece of beloved jewelry or pick up a new, inexpensive piece of bling. Seeing a shiny ring or hearing a bracelet jingle can make you more mindful of your hands. It might even encourage you to wash them more often. If you prefer a more low-maintenance approach, find a couple rubber bands and wear them around your wrist as a snappy reminder: “Hands off!”

Post up reminders: Trusty neon-colored sticky notes can be a great cue to keep your hands clean and off your face. Try a mix of pictures and words to make your message stand out. Put the notes up in your room, the kids' rooms, and in common areas of the house. Consider swapping colors and moving locations regularly to avoid getting used to seeing them.

You’ve got the look and touch

Break out the gloves: Consider putting on dressy or disposable gloves, especially if you’re leaving the house. The visual and sensory reminder will keep you from moving your hands as readily from surface to face.

A face-touching app: A new Fitbit Ionic app, JalepeNO!, reminds you not to touch your eyes, lips, and nose. Kim Binsted, a professor at the University of Hawai'i, designed it so you'll feel a vibration when you move your device near your face. She wants users to “treat your hands as if you have been chopping jalapeno peppers for a family of seven billion. Just say: JalapeNO!" 

(Un)common scents and movements

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Keeping your hands occupied may help keep them away from your face.

Try a new fragrance: Smelling the unexpected fragrance of a different lotion, hand sanitizer, or roll-on perfume near your face can remind you to put your hands down.

Idle hands make healthy humans: Are you a gesticulator? Keep your hands busy and away from your face by folding or wringing them in your lap. You might also try fiddling with an object like a stress ball or fidget spinner. Just remember to sanitize it regularly.

Harness your imagination: If you tend to cover your face with your hands when you're stressed, train yourself to try this routine instead:

  • Sit down
  • Tuck your hands under your legs
  • Close your eyes tight
  • Picture yourself in ideal, peaceful surroundings: walking on a beach, hiking your favorite trail, or sipping coffee on the porch

This moment of hands-free mindfulness can help reduce stress and center your mind on the task at hand.

Related readingHow to Cope with COVID-19 Stress and Anxiety

A few closing thoughts

While you were reading this, you probably touched your face at least two or three times. We won't judge – it's natural behavior. But it's a habit you can work to break. And doing so can help reduce your risk and the spread of COVID-19.  

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