Let's face facts

Updated: Apr 01, 2020, 09:58 IST | Sukanya Datta | Mumbai

A psychologist explains why your hands keep reaching for your face and how to get them to listen to you

In the 2011 movie Contagion, eerily prescient of the times we are living in, actor Kate Winslet, who plays a doctor says, "The average person touches their face 2,000 to 3,000 times a day." While there's no reference to the data source, the message has finally hit home, with health officials emphasising that we keep our hands away from our faces.

According to a World Health Organisation advisory, the reason is simple: hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. "Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the virus can enter your body and make you sick," it states.

But we are hardwired to touch our faces unconsciously, says Pragya Lodha, clinical psychologist and research associate at city-based De Sousa Foundation.

Let's face facts

So, why is the face one of the most frequently touched parts of our body and how do we keep our hands from reaching for our eyes, nose and mouths?

Staying in touch
Apart from consciously touching our faces while looking in the mirror, most often it is seen that we do it when we are stressed or anxious. "Scratching our jaws, pressing our forehead or trying to massage the point below our eyes are common physiological expressions of stress. The skin-to-skin contact works like a soothing mechanism and research shows that it releases oxytocin which helps us calm down," says Lodha.

There is also an evolutionary basis to the practice. "We have an attuned way of reacting; something that is absorbed over time," says the psychologist. For example, if parents react to a surprising situation by clapping their hands to their mouth, kids will pick it up. "During a recent discussion I attended, someone pointed out that according to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, the first level of psycho-sexual development is the oral stage. That could be one of the reasons why we take our hands near our mouths so often," Lodha suggests. Moreover, she adds that owing to various socio-cultural factors, our faces are considered assets, especially among women, leading us to keep touching the same unconsciously to make sure we look fine.

Let's face facts

Hands-off approach
Although we've been advised to not touch our faces, we are constantly covering our mouths while coughing or stepping out as a protective mechanism, says Lodha. "As it's difficult to keep our hands away from our faces, it's important to maintain hand hygiene. So, we must keep washing our hands," she asserts, adding that while going out, one should also consider wearing gloves.

If you rub your eyes frequently or press your fingers to your lower lips due to stress, consider using sanitised tissues. Lodha also advises that when you feel the stress, try to level your breathing for a minute and the urge to touch your face will pass.

The other thing to ensure is clean surroundings. If you're working at your laptop, then make sure the table, the keyboard, etc, are clean. "Stick post-its with reminders to not touch the face," she says. You can also consider keeping your hands occupied, with something like a fidget spinner, but it must be sanitised.

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