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Public health experts are urging people to stop touching their face to reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

MadRolly/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

As the new coronavirus upends daily life, people are now faced with having to quit certain habits, such as touching their faces, and avoid developing new ones while they’re stuck at home.

How do you quit your habit of brushing your hair out of your eyes? How do you stop yourself from snacking on all your emergency food? How do you avoid anxiously checking your social-media feeds?

“In general, habits are something that we do automatically, usually associated with a trigger. And actually, disruptions are a really good time to change habits,” says Marina Milyavskaya, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University. “In addition to avoiding the building of bad habits, we could use this time to start building new habits.”

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Here’s how.


Identify the habits you want to change

For some people, constantly checking the news may be a habit they want to break, especially if it contributes to their fear and anxiety.

“But to be honest right now, that might be a completely understandable response to the situation," Dr. Milyaskaya says.

So before you go ahead and resolve to make changes, she says, recognize which of your behaviours negatively affect you and determine which of them you actually want to target.

Notice when you’re doing it

Because they’re automatic, if you want to stop any kind of habit, the first step is to recognize whenever you’re doing it, Dr. Milyavskaya says.

For instance, she suggests, wearing gloves may be a way to help you become aware of when you touch your face.

Rodney Schmaltz, associate professor of psychology at MacEwan University in Edmonton, suggests a subtler tactic: Try changing your hand lotion to one with a different scent, so you catch a whiff of if when you bring your hands up toward your face.

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Separate the behaviour from the cue

Usually with habits, there’s a certain cue that triggers the behaviour, Dr. Milyavskaya says. For instance, a pang of hunger may be your cue to go rooting through the pantry. The aim, she says, is to link that cue with a different behaviour, one that’s positive.

So instead of raiding the pantry for chips and cookies whenever you feel peckish, she suggests, you can reach for a piece of fruit. (This can be made easier by placing fruit on the kitchen counter where it’s accessible.)

Stopping a behaviour outright is often much more difficult than replacing it with a response that’s rewarding, she says. The reward doesn’t have to be physical, it can even be a feeling of pride for sticking to your goals.

Dr. Schmaltz suggests doing something you enjoy and that refreshes you, such as going out onto your balcony or taking a walk.

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

Change your environment

Relying on willpower alone doesn’t work very well, Dr. Schmaltz says. Instead, he suggests, examine your environment and look for ways you can change it to make it easier for you to notice when you’re about to fall back on a habit and make it harder to carry out unhealthy behaviours. For example, if you keep your store of emergency food in your basement, you’ll be less likely to trek downstairs every time you feel bored and hungry, he says.

The same goes for alcohol or cannabis, excessive use of which mental-health experts advise against during the pandemic. Instead of keeping them within easy reach, try storing them somewhere less accessible.

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Track your behaviour

You may be surprised at how often you touch your face or check your online news feeds. Whatever the habit is you’re trying to break, keep track of how often you do it, Dr. Schmaltz says. From there, you can decide how you wish to change it and assess how well you’re faring. If you determine you want to cut back on the amount of online information you consume, try setting aside two or three windows during the day to check it, he suggests.

Inevitably, people fail when they first try to break a habit, he says. But keep trying different tactics if you find you’re not making progress.

“The big thing really is to continue to experiment,” he says. “Eventually, you’ll find what works for you and what’s most effective.”

Repeat, repeat, repeat

If you’re trying to replace bad habits with healthier, more productive ones, now is a good time to do it when you’re creating a new routine for yourself anyway, Dr. Milyavskaya says. The latter can include washing your hands more frequently, getting more exercise, eating more healthfully, making regular phone calls to loved ones and practising a new skill.

Just remember to be compassionate and kind to yourself.

While many believe it takes 30 days to build a habit, it actually takes longer than that, she says, noting some research suggests it can take a median of two months to adopt simple habits and longer to develop more complex ones.

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