I’ve always been a fidgety person; I think I was born biting my fingernails. I quit that habit years ago through little more than willpower, but I’ve haven’t done much about other fidgeting habits such as twirling my hair, stroking my beard and the like.
No big deal — until I couldn’t escape the advice that the two of the most important things for avoiding a bout of covid-19 are to wash one’s hands and not touch one’s face. Washing my hands more often and more thoroughly is something I could do, but I quickly had to face the fact that I touched my face — including my eyes, my nose and my mouth — almost constantly, putting me at risk for catching the novel coronovirus.
That was a week ago. I can’t claim to have completely broken the habit; as someone in a vulnerable age group, that’s a habit I’ve had for a long, long time. But I’m getting there.
My secret: mindfulness, which I was introduced to about four or so years ago. Little did I know then that the use of mindfulness would become potentially lifesaving.
Mindfulness? Doesn’t that have something to do with meditation? Well, yeah, it can. But meditation is only a means to practice mindfulness, which at its most basic is awareness of what is going on around us, in our bodies and within our minds.
So here’s what is working for me to break that face-touching habit: My first step was to make myself aware of what my hands were doing. Obviously, teaching myself to stop touching my face required me first to know when I was doing it.
I’m sure there are people who could starting doing that through willpower alone, but what helped me was to start wearing medical-grade vinyl gloves at work. Although I suspect my coworkers thought I was merely trying to keep my hands germ-free, my intent was to make me notice my hands. These gloves have a snug fit, just enough to make their presence known. And if I were to touch my face, the feel of vinyl would notify me of what I had done. If you want to try this without wearing vinyl gloves, you might try wearing some additional rings or coloring your fingernails. It doesn’t matter how you make yourself aware of your hands, just that you do.
The effect was almost immediate; I touched my face only once or twice (instead of probably 20 or 30 times) in the first hour. And that quickly helped me to learn one reason why I touched my face: I was being prompted to touch my face by tiny itches or other minor discomforts that could be resolved by a quick touch or rub.
And those minor facial discomforts quickly became the new problem. They were distracting at best, most often plain annoying, and sometimes infuriating.
Again, a mindful approach came to the rescue. If you’ve learned about mindfulness through meditation, you know that a common approach is to become an observer. For example, if you’re angry, you might learn how that anger feels, such as how it is affecting your jaw. With this kind of meditative practice, you don’t see anger as something to get rid of, just something that is. And once you objectively-as-possible understand that anger, you are in a better position to do something about it if you wish.
And so I tried the same thing with my facial discomforts: I observed them. I might make a mental measurement of how far a certain itch is from the left corner of my nose, for example, or I might attach a visual image to an itch, such as by seeing it as a tiny insect. Observing things in this way can reduce their power; some people have found a mindfulness approach even to pain to be helpful.
To my surprise, sometimes I would observe the itch going away on its own. Sometimes I would observe the itch and discover it had become less annoying. And, yes, sometimes I would observe myself getting angry at the itch and giving it a gentle scratch. And that’s OK; the departure from my desired behavior could also be observed, and then I could get an idea of how to do better next time.
To be honest, I haven’t reached the point where I can perfectly avoid being annoyed by an itch. And that’s OK — the goal isn’t to get of annoyances, it’s to stop touching my face. So I carry clean tissues with me and use that to lightly rub my face if necessary. The key is that what I’m doing now (usually!) is intentional.
The result is that I, not my hands, am the one in charge of when I touch my face. A practice of self-awareness is all it takes.