Is This Normal? ‘I Can’t Stop Touching My Face’
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
Smoothing my eyebrows, rubbing my eyes, picking my lips, scratching my nose, curling that one pesky chin hair that refuses to disappear — there are a thousand ways in which I’m inclined — no, compelled — to touch my face. I touch my face all day, every day, in a way that has become more of an involuntary reflex than a decision I consciously make. With the Covid19 pandemic, especially, this habit of mine was thrown in stark contrast to the best practices experts are touting. And I knew whatever the recommendations, touching my face was one behavior I could not (and wasn’t remotely inclined to) change.
Is this normal?
Yes. Studies show people touch their faces on an average of 16 to 23 times per hour — a fact highly inconvenient in the Covid19 pandemic, given the nose and mouth are the most likely ways in which the novel coronavirus enters people’s bodies. Earlier in the pandemic, experts said touching one’s face was detrimental to hand hygiene, creating possibilities for recontamination between bouts of handwashing. Some studies suggest there’s an evolutionary basis for the pervasiveness of this behavior, looking at how even babies in utero are likely to touch their faces when the mother is feeling stressed or if the mother is a smoker (although the latter study was found statistically inconclusive because of a small source pool).
Which brings us to the leading explanation for why face-touching is so common: stress. A 2014 study found face-touching, or what researchers called spontaneous facial self-touch gestures, as something people “frequently accomplished with little or no awareness.” The study found correlations between face-touching and electrical brain activity that led researchers to conclude emotional regulation and self-soothing might drive the need to touch one’s own face. Brief facial touches, research finds, seem to indicate a person’s concentration on the task at hand and a desire to ward off distractions; a continuous facial touch, on the other hand, seems to signal more permanent feelings of anxiety and nervousness.
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Another reason for facial touching could be related to memory, in a process called social chemosignaling, a 2015 paper found. Researchers documented people shaking another’s hand and then bringing their own hand up to sniff it, in a process they hypothesized was designed to test another person’s scent, and in turn, carry out a subliminal social process wired in all humans.
Facial touch, and humans’ self-touching behaviors in general, are widely documented but little researched, which makes the above reasons merely hypotheses borne out of small studies. We do know face-touching is the most common way in which humans touch themselves, and it functions as an involuntary and unconscious technique to manage emotions. The frequency, type, and duration of these touches, and their different functions, are yet to be scientifically investigated in a conclusive manner.
In the end, the Covid19 pandemic has brought many new stressors, making emotional regulation and self-soothing more necessary than usual. Unfortunately, face-touching, while the natural, easiest stress reliever, is not a good option amid a pandemic and could, perhaps, become the source of yet another stressor. Stuck in this dilemma am I, along with every other human being, palms itching, dreaming of curling that chin hair again soon.