Why you can't stop touching your face, even though it's one of the best ways to prevent coronavirus spread

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The proclivity to touch your own face is an extremely human habit.

  • One of the CDC's top pieces of advice for protecting yourself from the coronavirus is to stop touching your face, eyes, and mouth, but people are having trouble kicking the habit.
  • That's because face-touching is a natural human habit, and like any habit, it can be difficult to break even when you know it's good for you to stop.
  • We're conditioned to touch our own faces from a young age because it signals public self-awareness, psychologist and anxiety specialist Kevin Chapman told Business Insider.
  • Setting a phone reminder to keep your hands away from your face and keeping your hands occupied could help curb the habit.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus outbreak has spread global panic, with people searching for sure-fire ways to protect themselves. For a while, many people (inspired by celebrities) thought masks would do it. But according to the health officials around the world, masks are futile for healthy people.

The best thing you can do, experts say, is to stop touching your nose, eyes, and mouth. However, many find they can't seem to kick the habit.
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According to Kevin Chapman, a psychologist and the director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, the proclivity to touch your own face is an extremely human habit because touching your face subconsciously signals you're self-aware to others who may be around you.

"Public self-awareness generally refers to our awareness of ourselves from the perspective of other people, which is inevitably triggered during social interactions," Chapman told Business Insider. "Naturally, people examine the faces of others and are sensitive to various facial cues, so face touching may be in part related to the natural tendency to be sensitive to our faces and our facial expressions."

An April 2014 study suggested touching one's own face helps to regulate stress and memory formation.
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Since face-touching can be a relational tool, humans start touching their own faces from a young age and it becomes a habit, making it even harder to stop, even if a person's health is at stake.

"Psychologically, most individuals don't interpret various forms of threat and contamination in relation to their faces and therefore fail to associate sickness and illness with face touching," Chapman said. "Most individuals don't associate CDC advice with their daily functioning [like face touching] due to an illusion of control."He said the one exception to this would be people with anxiety disorders who are more aware of their lack of control.
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Telling yourself you can't touch your face will (likely) make you touch your face more

Although it's possible to touch your face less, or not at all as the CDC recommends, Chapman said being hard on yourself won't help at all because suppressing thoughts doesn't typically help people curb their habitual behaviors.

He suggested taking a flexible approach instead. Rather than telling yourself, "I will not touch my face at all in public today," tell yourself, "I need to be more aware of touching my own face today."

Setting a phone reminder or occupying your hands could help

Chapman said to set a phone reminder so you actively remember to be aware of your own face-touching.
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"Habit reversal is certainly possible, and requires the practice of skills to reprogram one's action tendencies," Chapman said.

You could also try occupying your hands with a stress ball or crossing your arms so your hands aren't free to touch your face, Denise Cummins, a cognitive scientist who researches thinking and decision-making, told HuffPost.

Lastly, take other CDC-approved measures like washing your hands with soapy warm water for at least 20 seconds, staying home when you're sick, and avoiding close contact with sick people.
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