Do you find your hand regularly creeping up toward your head, despite recent advice from public health experts to keep your fingers and your face firmly separated?
If so, you’re not alone. Even trivial habits like touching your face can prove surprisingly hard to shake.
Psychologists have spent years investigating the question of how to unwind unwanted habits, which has led to habit reversal training, a therapy designed to do pretty much what the name says.
Now, a group of researchers have come out with a paper outlining how people can use principles from habit reversal training to take on a habit we’re suddenly trying to break en masse: touching our faces needlessly.
According to the researchers, the first step is to develop awareness of when you tend to touch your face. Do certainly situations repeatedly bring your hand into the vicinity of your eyes, nose or mouth? Is there a particular way of touching your face, such as biting your nails, that you’re inclined toward? Note what you’re doing when you find yourself reaching toward your own head, and keep a list of situations that recur.
Once you’ve developed awareness, you can get better at noticing the behavior. A technique toward this goal is to run “simulations” by putting yourself in situations where you typically touch your face and going through the motions of touching your face, but stopping yourself before you actually touch your face.
Wash your hands before starting these simulations so the stakes are low! Then, focus your awareness on the motion of your hand toward your face, until you stop just short of actually touching your face. Repeat the process, but stop the motion earlier and earlier – that is, farther and farther from actually touching your face. As you develop your ability to notice yourself engaging in your habitual face-touching actions, you should get better at catching yourself in the act.
Another technique is to replace the habit with a competing response. As before, you can practice this by acting out situations where you have a tendency to touch your face. This time, instead of following through the action of touching your face, interrupt the action with a different action that makes face touching impossible – the researchers give one possible example as closing your hand into a fist.
The trick here is that even if you can’t eliminate the habit of touching your face overnight, you can gradually modify the habit into a habit of noticing and stopping yourself during the action of touching your face, or replacing that action with one that’s innocuous.
The result, if everything goes as planned, is a win-win: you cut back hand-to-face contact and discover a new way of dealing with unwanted habits that can potentially be applied in other areas of your life!