Oops! I did it again!

“Don’t touch your face” is one of the important public health advisements provided to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Germs on the hands can easily be transmitted to the internal body through contact with the more permeable mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth. 

But various research studies show we touch our faces a LOT, up to 23 times per hour, with 44 percent of these touches to membrane areas of the nose, eyes and mouth.

What are we to do? I recommend that we consider our efforts to decrease face touching as a form of practicing mindfulness.  Let me explain based on my experiences.

Before I was more self-aware, I engaged in a lot of mindless fidgeting. At one point I had a haircut that I generally wore tucked behind my ears. The result was that I would constantly tuck my hair behind my ears, a compulsive behavior that increased when I was nervous — say when I was speaking in public. As I fussed with my hair repetitively, this became annoying to my audience.

Many people with longer hair fidget by fluffing, flipping or straightening their hair without any awareness of what they are doing. Often driven by low-grade anxiety, these fidgets indicate a lack of mindfulness.

In the past I have worked (fairly successfully…) to address other behaviors such as slouching, jaw clenching, and saying “I know” reflexively in conversation. 

Since I’ve become a psychotherapist, I have to be very mindful of a wide range of my behaviors and how they might affect my clients. I have to control how I present myself:  my facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, body language, posture, and speed of speaking all can impact my clients, so I have to modulate them appropriately. 

How was I able to succeed at making changes to my mindless behaviors? Through mindfulness. 

In many forms of seated meditation, we often use a focus on the breath to center our attention. Then when thoughts arise, we redirect the attention to the experience of breathing and being present. In the same way that we notice the thoughts arising unbidden, we can begin to notice physical actions arising without awareness. 

The essential first step to changing a thought or behavior is with neutral awareness. I compare this to a scientist observing a behavior in a subject. 

So, when I noticed myself tucking my hair or fidgeting or jaw clenching, I would begin by just noticing the behavior: “Oh, look, my jaw was tight again.”  The act of observing alone can be informative: “Wow, look how often I do this.” Often we just lack awareness of our behaviors and when we become more conscious of them, we change them fairly easily. One study I read recently found that people reduced their face touching significantly when they documented each time they did so on their phone or other convenient place. 

After observing, if I decide I need to make more conscious efforts to change a behavior, I begin by taking a deep breath and exhaling fully, which helps me relax. I draw my attention to my present experience, my body and my emotions. 

The next step is important:  Engage in any type of mental dialogue about the behavior with self-compassion, rather than self-judgment. Don’t begin to criticize yourself, as in: “I’m such a slow learner. Why can’t I stop touching my face? Geez, I’m pathetic.” Use a curious, non-judgmental mindset instead. Say something like: “Yes, I did just touch my face again. It is a habit that many people do frequently. It’s going to take some time and patience to change this. I’ll start now by choosing to notice when I have an urge to touch my face, and then make a choice not to do it.” 

Changing habits is difficult, but it is possible. Overall, approaching life with calmer energy is an important component. When we are fearful and anxious, we are generally going to be less self-aware. Fear hijacks the brain, making it less thoughtful, so that we may be more likely to engage in mindless, repetitive actions such as fidgeting or face touching. 

A daily practice of mindfulness meditation can be helpful in lowering your overall sense of anxiety and stress, which will then help you be in a better overall mindset to manage unconscious behaviors. 

Being mindful and controlling our mindless behaviors is a very empowering experience, putting us in charge of our thoughts and actions. 

So be well, and do try to stop touching your face. Seems like this is good advice even after this virus has passed!

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