There’s been a lot written about what to do to protect yourself from the coronavirus. Some of it’s pretty easy. Wash your hands regularly? Check. Avoid Wuhan province in China and locations within Iran? Check, and check.
But some of the proffered prohibitions are a lot harder to comply with — like, the instruction that you’re supposed to avoid touching your face. As one article somewhat alarmingly puts it, “[a]ll it takes is just one virus to hitch a ride on a contaminated finger and slip into the body through a nostril or a wet part of the face” — and then bad things could happen. So, any contact between fingers and face is to be strictly avoided. In fact, one reason some health officials encourage people not to buy face masks is that putting on and taking off and adjusting the mask causes wearers to touch their faces, and you don’t want to do that.
Not touching your face is harder than it sounds, because we’ve been unconsciously touching our faces for our entire lives — since earliest infancy, and probably before that in the womb, too. We rub the sleep out of our eyes, and we scratch our noses when they get itchy. We groom our our eyebrows, fiddle with our eyelashes, rub the bridge of our noses, and stroke our chins because we think it makes us look more intelligent. We rest our cheeks against fists and palms. These little gestures have been a basic part of our daily lives, and now we’re supposed to stop?
Of course, the issue of touching your face has been studied, like everything else humans do. According to the article linked above, one study of medical students showed that, on average, they touched their faces 23 times an hour — and I’m surprised that, for people sitting idle in a classroom, that number isn’t a lot higher. And researchers argue that there are lots of reasons for our reflexive face-touching. Some say that face-touching is related to negative feelings, when we’re feeling uneasy or unsettled. Others say face touching increases when people are distracted and need to refocus, and face touching is a kind of mental cue to help in the focusing process.
So, how do you stop touching your face? The first step is to actually be aware when you are doing it. If we can stop acting reflexively, and start doing things only purposefully and intentionally, maybe we can avoid those unconscious gestures and do something else to occupy our hands when the urge to scratch, rub, or fiddle becomes irresistible. And washing our hands before and after is important, too.
But boy! It’s going to be hard not to scratch that itch.