Coronavirus: Why It’s So Hard to Stop Touching Your Face

Japanese Politics

Getty A politician waits for the result of a vote in 2017.

The global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has affected nearly every aspect of society in the United States and around the world. The White House has recommended that all public gatherings are limited to 10 people, sports leagues have been postponed and many schools and businesses have closed across the country.

The CDC has provided guidelines for people to follow to protect themselves from coronavirus. The most important advice it gives is to wash hands often with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds, and to avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose with unwashed hands.

With this outbreak, many people have pointed out that it’s a lot more difficult to avoid touching your face than you would expect. In fact, people actually seem to touch their faces very frequently. Why is that?

People Touch Their Faces Out of Habit, Often to Ease Stress or Discomfort

Years before the COVID-19 coronavirus emerged, a Sydney university ran a study to see how often people touched their faces. The 2015 study captured 26 medical students on video, and found that all of them touched their faces an average of 23 times per hour. Almost half of those contacts, 44%, involved the students touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

Face touching is a habit that people have developed from a young age, and it can be very difficult to break it. A 2014 study found that “spontaneous facial self-touch gestures” are done “primarily in stressful situations” in which the person is barely aware they’re making the gestures. It said that facial self-touching “helps to regulate stress and memory formation.”

Another study wrote in its introduction that “even though self-touches (ST) may seem to appear in response to itching skin sensations or grooming needs, many research results imply associations of ST with underlying negative affect, anxiety or discomfort.”

For those struggling to break the habit of touching their face, cognitive scientist Denise Cummins told HuffPost to replace it with something else that’s incompatible with face touching, like holding a stress ball in your hand or crossing your arms. She also said to try to make the habit uncomfortable, such as by wearing wool gloves that won’t feel pleasant on your face.

People Have Shared Their Struggles Online With Not Touching Their Faces

On March 4, a video went viral of a health official in California giving guidance on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus. Shortly after she highlighted the importance of not touching your face, especially your nose and mouth, she licked her finger to turn the page.

Here is the video, which has been seen on this Twitter account over 7 million times:

In another case, according to a CNN producer, President Trump said during a briefing on coronavirus: “I haven’t touched my face in weeks. I miss it.” Someone then posted a photo of Trump from two days prior, which showed him touching his face during the coronavirus task force meeting.

One user posted a video of herself trying to avoid touching her face every two seconds. The video has been viewed over 7 million times:

Another humorous meme shows someone’s reaction when being told they can’t touch their face, using a clip from the movie Little Women:

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