While it's never really a good time to be a lip-picker or nail-biter, hand-to-mouth fixations are particularly risky in the time of coronavirus. Per the Center for Disease Control Prevention (CDC)'s COVID-19 protection guidelines, "avoid[ing] touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands," can help prevent COVID-19 infections, in addition to wearing your mask in public. If you have not yet found an alternative for anxious fiddling that works for you, now is the time to explore more hygienic options.
Knowing the risks might not be enough to redirect habits that are deeply rooted in the body and in some cases, attached to emotional triggers. Up to 30% of the population engages in nail-biting, and many nail-biters, lip-pickers, and chronic face-touchers aren't even aware that their hands are always within an inch of a mucus membrane. But according to psychotherapist Dr. Jeffry Rubin, Ph.D, there's nothing mindless about these habits at all. "Its a form self-soothing," he tells Bustle, adding that these habits can be life-long struggles or recent developments due to pandemic-related stress. "We rebel against ourselves with these types of behaviors, resisting reason for what we believe is comfort," Dr. Rubin says.
But while picking and touching and biting might feel soothing, it can be more harmful than helpful.
"People who have these habits need to find ways to manage their feelings and realize that they are literally tearing at themselves," says Dr. Rubin. Without judging or demonizing these habits, Dr. Rubin says it's important to look at the behavior and try to understand what it means to you, as the reasons can be very personal. "One person might bite their nails because it makes them feel in control, while another person might bite their nails because it helps them channel their nervous energy and focus. It's entirely subjective and deeply personal for everyone," Dr. Rubin says. Taking the time to consider what's behind the habit for you is the first step in getting control over it. "Awareness is a very important step," he adds.
The reality is, however, that unearthing the psychological reasons why you've developed these habits is not going to happen overnight, and there's a lot of pressure to cut them out, now. According to licensed therapist Caroline Given, L.C.S.W., it's more than OK to make little, immediate changes to keep your hands away from your face while you work on the emotional aspect at your own pace. "The root of these behavior disruption/replacement techniques is based in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) which emphasizes mindfulness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation," Given says, adding that DBT is so effective because it teaches skills that will work immediately, so you have something effective to supplement while you’re addressing "the larger core issue." For some people, the core issue might lie in a disorder like dermatillomania or trichotillomania — urges to to pick skin or pull out hair, respectively — which should be treated with a specialist.
For those who simply fidget — and there's a lot of us — here are some suggestions from experts that might help to redirect that energy away from putting your hands near your mouth. While these might not work for everyone and don't replace professional support, you might find them helpful in the interim.
Wear An Elastic Around Your Wrist
If you like the sensation of pressure and tension on your fingers, try to keep a hair elastic or rubber band around your wrist and play with light snaps and looping it (gently) around your fingers. While you work on your emotional triggers, you might be able to get some of the satisfaction from weaving your fingers around the elastic band. According to Given, creating sensations with this type of object can be gratifying.
Get A Gadget
If clicking a pen is satisfying, but you also tend to chew on it, opt for a different gadget that you're less tempted to gnaw on. "Fidget spinners, little cubes with buttons, knobs, switches — these can be something satisfying for someone to do with their hands that will be more hygienic than touching their face and that they can sanitize them," Given says. Just make sure that you are regularly wiping down this object with an alcohol-based cleaner and keeping it out of your mouth. And if you absolutely must chew on something, keep a pack of gum on hand.
Redirect Your Urges Towards Another Habit
Redirecting the impulse to engage in some of these behaviors is also recommended. "Every time you have the impulse to bite your nails, put on hand sanitizer, go wash your hands at the sink, or put on hand cream instead," Given suggests. You might be less likely to put your hands in your mouth if they taste like alcohol anyway.
You could try mindfulness, too. Dr. Rubin says to close your eyes, take at least six deep breaths through your nose, and imagine the air being drawn into your lungs and nourishing your body each time. This calming technique might help to squash the impulse altogether. Alternatively, if you're craving more tension and sensation, Dr. Rubin suggests clenching your fists, tightening your whole body for 10 seconds and then letting go. You can repeat this practice a few times wear out your muscles and dull your urges.
Wear A Mask And Gloves, Even Inside
If wearing a mask in public keeps you from touching your mouth and wearing gloves keeps you from picking at your fingers or rubbing your eyes, keep them on. "Think about when you are most likely to participate in these behaviors," Dr. Rubin says. If you tend to chew your fingers while you're on the phone, put gloves on before making the call. If you tend to touch your mouth while you're driving, leave the mask on in the car.
The goal of these alternatives is not to add another coping habit to your repertoire, but rather to ensure that you're not putting yourself at risk of contracting the coronavirus. "Creating a physical barrier can break the cycle and create awareness while you’re working on addressing the underlying emotional issue," Given says. "Once anxiety is brought down, those behaviors do decrease."
Dr. Jeffry Rubin, Ph.D, psychotherapist and author practicing in Bedford Hills, New York.
Caroline Given, L.C.S.W., licensed therapist, social worker and millennial life coach practicing in Central Florida.