Break these 3 Habits to Optimize Physical Distancing

It’s June 1st 2020 and if you live on planet Earth, you’re being affected by the current global pandemic known as COVID-19.

Whether you’re in lock-down or not, governments and health organizations around the world are encouraging social distancing practices to keep the virus at bay until it can be treated. That means staying at least 2 metres / 6 feet away from one another.

Watch the video instead!

But it seems, based on the numbers, that the virus hasn’t stopped yet. Why is that? Because even though we are trying to social distance, there are 3 crucial habits we engage in that are keeping social distancing from working at maximum capacity. And even if you’re watching this and the pandemic has ended, learning to recognize then break these 3 habits can still help minimize your chances of getting sick.

1) Touching objects of interest

Have you ever felt the urge to touch an object as you walked by it? That could be clothes at the store or maybe objects at a museum.

Through trying to research for this video I realized there are a few different reasons why you might feel an urge to touch something. What it usually boils down to is people having a need to feel satisfied. Think about walking through the mall, you see something that piques your interest and it’s likely you’ll want to feel the fabric and pick it up and look at it from all angles. That’s because if we suspect something to be pleasurable we will do something to confirm that suspicion. And when the suspicion is confirmed, a dopaminergic effect results in a part of the basal ganglia called the caudate nucleus.

a diagram of the basal ganglia

Think about what a habit is it a stimulus-response activity also known as an if this, then that activity. The “response” in the case of habit is always an expected dopaminergic effect.

The Habit formula with a red arrow pointing to the reward component of the formula and referring to it as the expected dopaminergic effect.

So when you see something that you expect to feel pleasurable, your brain wants to close that habit loop by touching that thing to confirm the expectation. I am going to go much deeper into the if this, then that effect of habit in an upcoming post so make sure you subscribe if you want to see that one.

Stores use this tactic to get people to buy more products. A study out of the University of Ohio shows that by touching something we gain a sense of ownership and these feelings can only take 30 seconds to arise. Think about that next time you go shopping.

So what do we do to stop that urge when there is a threat of covid-19?

Well you have to remember that bad habits are not broken through inaction, they are broken through acting differently. So my suggestion to you is to hold onto something that does feel good as you walk through the store. That could mean holding on to the inside of your pockets if they are soft or just putting a soft cotton ball or a soft piece of fabric in your pocket to hold onto.
You could also simply try keeping your hands clasped or holding onto a purse or bag with both hands.

2) Touching your face

I’m sure you’ve heard that humans touch their faces a ridiculous amounts of times per day. I actually found one study that showed humans touch their faces up to 23 times per hour.

One of the reasons we do this is to satisfy a response similar to pain. A 2019 study found that when we have an itch (whether is be from dust or hair or anything else that brushes up against our face), your brain interprets it as something similar to pain. However it is important for me to point out, pain and itch are “likely not transmitted via identical neural pathways.”

To follow the link to the study, click the photo

That said when we feel an itch we want to get rid of the feeling it gives, so we scratch. The scratching feels good because it provides a temporary relief to this pain-like feeling and we learn to expect this relief. And if you remember what I just taught you about habit, you’d recognize this itch-scratch behaviour a stimulus-response behaviour.

So the question remains: how do you stop touching your face?

Firstly, we can do our best to prevent that itch from occurring. So if you have long hair, I recommend putting it back in a braid or ponytail. You can also make sure your skin is moisturized and exfoliated to prevent dry skin from flaking during the day and feeling itchy.
Secondly, you can put nail polish or rings on your hands that will remind you when you see them, to not touch your face. I understand that might leave the itch unsatisfied, so if you have the willpower, you can remind yourself the itch will subside. But remember a bad habit can only be broken through acting differently. So what I do personally is I’ll fan my face and let the wind I generate with my hand relieve the itch for me. PLEASE TELL ME I AM NOT THE ONLY PERSON WHO DOES THIS! THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE! For all I know, I could be fanning more germs onto my face LOL…

By the way if you guys are finding this post helpful so far, don’t forget to share it with at least one friend 🙂

3) Wanting closeness with people you care for

People are social beings, generally speaking we like touch and closeness particularly when we see someone we like. When we do see someone we like we expect that hugging them or creating a physical connection by touching them will make us feel good – which again is that dopaminergic response in the caudate nucleus.

There are two things are I found work here. First, do your best to start the conversation at a distance and then anchor-in on an inanimate object to make sure you don’t find yourself moving closer as you talk. Second, try to pause or speak slower to give yourself a chance to initiate the dopaminergic response without having to touch or hug the other person. Dr. Andrew Huberman discusses how you can initiate that response on your own just by pausing to congratulate yourself; in this case you can remind yourself that being in this person’s presence is enough to make you feel good. Check-out this interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman where he discusses initiating the dopaminergic response on your own.

All in all remember to slow down so that you can be mindful of your behaviour, break these habits to improve your social distancing (WOOP WOOP!)

As always I hope you have a great day and don’t forget to make this the year of you!

Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. Any information and content on my website is not a substitute for professional health advice.

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