The Small Stresses of Keeping Coronavirus-Free

Why is it so, so hard to stop touching your face?

Woman smiling with hand resting on her face
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Recently, in this time of coronavirus, I got home and dutifully washed my hands to two cycles of “Happy Birthday.” Then I did what I automatically do when my mind is idle and my hands are free, which is to take my phone out of my pocket—the same phone, I groaned upon realizing, that I had just been using with unwashed hands while riding the bus and buying groceries and touching doorknobs. I set my phone on the counter but immediately regretted it. Did I need to disinfect my counter now? What about the inside of my pocket? Oh my God, did I just touch my face?

As the coronavirus has spread, I’ve noticed this second-guessing—not always rational—start to infect my everyday habits. When these deliberations start to spiral, I realize that I can wage total and obsessive germ warfare, or I can get on with my life. It’s not that I necessarily fear the virus itself—most cases of the disease it causes, known as COVID-19, have been mild. But the deluge of coronavirus news has made its potential but invisible presence foremost in my mind and extracted a kind of mental tax.

With the coronavirus undetected because of delayed testing and now spreading in U.S. communities, the burden to prevent its further spread has in some ways shifted onto our individual actions—as a kind of civic duty, even. So I’m constantly reminded that gestures as mindless as pushing an elevator button are possible vectors of disease. I’m constantly trying to remember which knuckle pushed the elevator button and which knuckle is possibly safe to use to scratch this itch on my nose.

Oh, right, yes—I’m supposed to avoid touching my face, a task that I and pretty much everyone else have been failing at specularly. It’s hard to change habits, and that is exactly what public-health advice for the coronavirus has asked us to do. By definition, habits are things “we don’t put a lot of cognitive effort into making happen,” says Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. Changing those habits does take cognitive effort. And it takes an ambient alertness about seemingly infinite tiny gestures that you might normally do on autopilot.

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You might, for example, expend mental energy remembering not to touch your face. Then your nose starts itching and you’re thinking about what you can do, but in that time, you’ve already subconsciously scratched your nose. (Face touching, ironically, is a stress response.) Now you’re beating yourself up about it, and your paranoid mind says maybe you’re already infected with the virus so why even bother? Now repeat this for dozens of moments throughout the day that would otherwise pass without thought.

Bufka suggests using positive reinforcement instead. Congratulate yourself when you remember to wash your hands for the full 20 seconds. Don’t be too hard on yourself about the time you forgot, as developing new habits invariably takes some time. “When there was the first public education campaign to sneeze to our elbows, that took me several weeks to make the transition,” she says. And the coronavirus seems likely to still be around in several weeks, so these habits, ingrained now, could become even more important.

Also, don’t overthink it, as I almost certainly did when I started to worry about my counter and the insides of my pockets. (For perspective, the CDC recommends disinfecting phones and other highly trafficked hard surfaces every day. Viruses are also unlikely to persist on absorbent materials such as fabric.) As my colleague James Hamblin writes on the issue of disinfecting surfaces, “It’s very possible to become compulsive about this in ways that have their own risks. Any given surface is very unlikely to harbor a dangerous virus, so it’s possible to overdo this and waste a lot of time, resources, and concern.” And it’s possible to become so overwhelmed going down a compulsive spiral that you throw your (unwashed) hands up and despair.

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The public-health advice around the coronavirus is about maintaining this balance. “We need to be careful with the risk-benefit ratio,” says Elaine Larson, an infection-control expert at Columbia University. Significantly reducing the chances of your exposure to the coronavirus is perfectly doable. Reducing it to absolute zero is pretty much impossible. You could drive yourself up the wall trying to track the spot on your shirt that brushed against your coat sleeve that had brushed up against a subway pole, but you rapidly reach a point of diminishing returns.

Constant reminders of the coronavirus can easily tip from mindfulness into anxiety. “You don’t have to read every piece of news,” says Bufka, the clinical psychologist. “It’s highly unlikely there is a piece of news that is going to so dramatically change in the next hour what we are going to do that we have to read it right now … You can make some decisions about when you’re done. I’m good with that. I can live with that.”