By Bobbi Wegner, PsyD, a supervising clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine and lecturer in Human Development and Psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education
We love to touch our face
A quick swipe of an itchy nose. A rub of a tired eye. A tap to the lips. We all love to touch our face. That’s why we do it all the time. So often that we barely register it.
The average person touches their face approximately 23 times an hour. Or about once every 2.5 minutes. And nearly half of those touches involve the eye, nose, or mouth.
Touching feels nice
It’s a self-soother that starts in utero before we’re even born. There are a number of theories around why we like to touch our face. It could be a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, a way to regulate emotion, or even help our memory. But whatever the reason, we do it subconsciously and repeatedly. And it may be putting us at risk. Particularly now during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The reason something as seemingly harmless as scratching your nose can be harmful is because the eyes, nose, and mouth are a direct entryway into our body. We can potentially self-infect. If there are germs on our hands and then we touch our mouth, for instance, we may then swallow those germs. Or breathe them in through our nose or in a blink of an eye. what's going on
Germs can be good
Throughout the day, people grab doorknobs, flush toilets, and generally live in a hands-on, pathogen-filled world. All of that is okay and even healthy. Some germ exposure boosts our immune system. But pushing pathogens into our bodies, especially during a viral outbreak like COVID-19, can be dangerous.
It is nearly impossible not to feel bombarded by all the cultural anxiety around catching this disease. Everywhere we turn, there are statistics about who is getting infected, who is dying, and what symptoms to look out for. We are in a pandemic hysteria that both works to keep us safe and ratchets up the anxiety.
What to do
Action provides some control. Feeling in control manages anxiety. Changing your behavior and cutting back on face-touching minimizes the probability of infection. It also helps you to calm down. Knowing you are doing what you can do to be safe can be a powerful antidote to all the emotional chaos.
Learning not to touch your face is just one simple change that can lessen your risk of catching COVID-19. It will also keep you healthier year-round when other more everyday viruses swirl around.
How to stop touching your face
1. The key to any behavioral change is defining your goal. Start with something realistic and achievable. In this case, the overall goal is “Touch Face Less.”
- Begin the retraining process by setting a more specific and doable goal like, “Touch Face 15 Times or Less.” The goal can gradually scale down until it becomes “Only Touch Face as Necessary.” You achieve this by adjusting the behavior goal over time (15 times per hour to 10 times/hour to 5 times/hour).
- Don’t try to set goals too steep that make failure inevitable—like starting with “No Touching the Face.” And make sure you have mastered one goal before moving on to the next. You want to be successful with that goal level for at least 3 days in a row.
- Be exact and concrete when you create your goal. It makes measuring and tracking much easier. Of course, it is inevitable you will have an itch that needs to be scratched. That isn’t failure. Remember, the overarching goal is to raise awareness of your actions and cut down on frequent, repeated, subconscious touching—not torture yourself.
2. Next, continued awareness is crucial in changing this behavior. How can you stop when you don’t even notice you are touching? You need to become conscious of how often you touch your face.
3. Start by just noticing. Be curious and quiz yourself: “How often am I touching my face” and “Where on my face am I touching?”
4. Charting as a way of tracking is an effective intervention. Often just noticing behavior is enough to curb it. Once you make subconscious behavior more conscious, it is much easier to avoid. Keep track of your progress on an app like Momentum, Way of Life, or Piggyjar. These help raise awareness and consolidate the new information into your memory, which ultimately supports behavior change. Or just jot down in your phone.
5. Now, think about the “Why” “Why am I touching my face now”’ “What are my thoughts, if any, at this moment?”’ “What is my stress level right now? ”Most of us are under increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19. So if face-touching is self-soothing, unfortunately, you might be touching even more than usual. The coronavirus might be subconsciously triggering the touching when in fact, staying safe requires the exact opposite response. Becoming conscious of the behavior is the first step to overcoming it.
6. Lastly, to change a behavior you have to offer alternatives. Start with your thought process. Say to yourself, “The best way to stay healthy is to not touch my face.” Think this whenever you sense yourself reaching out for your face, catch yourself touching, and just generally throughout the day (even when you aren’t touching). Small notes on your mirror, computer screen, and reminders set in your phone can reinforce the behavior change.
7. Offer yourself alternate behaviors. Instead of resting your head in your hand, stroke your hair. Give yourself a gentle rub on your arms. Or, better yet, schedule handwashing throughout the day. It’s a win-win—a COVID-approved preventative and self-soothing measure. And something you can actually feel really good about doing.
I am a 53-year-old woman who manages a convenience store. About 1 month ago I started having trouble with my eyes. Red, watery, and extremely sensitive to light, with a headache. I do wear contact lenses. I was put on antiviral medication with antibiotic drops and steroid drops. I am still having all the same symptoms. My eye doctor is closed now and I am an essential worker. I have no temperature but am not sure if this could be related.