Keys for keeping to habits to combat coronavirus contagion

Foto: Claudio Schwarz | Unsplash

Rubén Permuy Iglesias

Although it has been weeks

Although it has been weeks since the start of the lockdown, we have to stay alert if we want the curve of COVID-19 cases to flatten. Putting an end to the pandemic requires that efforts be made on all sides, with decisions being made at government level, regarding healthcare and affecting the day-to-day of the population. We are bombarded with a multitude of indications, but washing our hands, and more thoroughly than normal, and not touching our face are probably the most familiar. They seem obvious but it is important to stress that we cannot “let our guard down just because so much time has gone by since the lockdown started”. These are the sentiments of Manuel Armayones, UOC researcher, eHealth Centerdevelopment director and professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences

Wash your hands better and for longer

In reports published prior to the current pandemic, the World Health Organization indicated that only 5% of the population washed their hands for at least 15 seconds. Similar research at the University of Michigan showed that of a sample of 3,700 students, 10% did not wash their hands after going to the bathroom. This panorama means we have an ideal breeding ground for the pandemic, so now more than ever it is important that we improve this habit to help reduce the number of new COVID-19 infections.

Experts state that, after weeks of being confined to the home by government mandate, a large percentage of the population is, in the words of Armayones, “suffering from mental exhaustion, and may be starting to take a more relaxed stance towards these measures, failing to wash their hands as thoroughly as necessary”. This UOC professor, who is also a researcher with the Psychology, Health and the Net (PSiNET) group, says that is it highly feasible that the institutional messages about prevention and hygiene measures that have been flooding the various communication channels are beginning not to register with the population.

Remember not to touch your face

Many of us may not think we tend to touch our faces that much, but studies have confirmed that in reality we touch them dozens of times an hour. For example, in 2015, a research project at the University of Sydney analysed a group of medical students and found that they touched their faces an average of 23 times every 60 minutes. As the Health authorities have been saying all along, touching our faces is one of the ways we can catch COVID-19 after coming into contact with it with our hands.

To help keep us safe, experts have given us tips to help us remember to keep our hands away from our faces. Putting aside options that are hardly realistic on a daily basis, like wearing a full helmet when we go out shopping, Armayones opts for more accessible measures, like “wearing long sleeves so that, if we have to touch or scratch our face, we can do it with the sleeve”. Another thing the UOC expert suggests is for us to sit on our hands whenever possible.

Habits during a state of emergency

During a pandemic, washing our hands – especially if we’ve left the house or have been in contact with someone who has been outside – and not touching our face “have to become new habits that we follow as scrupulously as possible,” Armayones said. This is the key to keeping our daily activities from becoming a veritable petri dish of contagion. But is adopting habits in times of crisis that easy, or do we tend to drop our guard?

It is precisely for that reason that experts recommend adopting healthy habits to ensure we stay in the best physical and mental state possible during the lockdown. We should stick to a daily routine, exercise and follow a varied and healthy diet, which, among other things, will help us to sleep better and more soundly.

Adopting new habit is nothing new for many of us and is, in fact, our main goal during certain times of the year, such as at New Year. Although at first we may take on the challenge of a lifestyle change with relative ease, over time it may prove to be harder than expected. However, as Armayones said, “changing human habits is easier than it seems if we are clear on how to go about it”.

Psychology has long been studying in depth what a habit consists of, why they are so difficult to change, and, above all, what strategies we can use to ultimately change them. In Armayones’ opinion, “The best way to overcome an obstacle is to understand it, and once understood, be able to apply the strategies that will get us over the hurdle.” A habit is a behaviour that we systematically repeat each day at the same time; for example, turning the coffeemaker on when we come into the kitchen to make breakfast once we have got out of bed. “It’s a behaviour that’s repeated so often, it becomes second nature.We do it without even thinking,” the expert said.

So is it really that difficult to get into the habit of washing our hands correctly and remembering not to touch our face? Armayones explained it this way: “COVID-19 forces us to adopt a series of habits under the gun. The challenge is introducing them into our daily routine, or, in the case of not touching our faces, being able to not do something that for the majority of people was already force of habit.” In the researcher’s opinion the key is to be actively aware of creating new habits, even though this may require additional effort since it “breaks our pattern of usual behaviour”. But Armayones assured: “If we repeat them enough and, most importantly,give ourselves a pat on the back every time we do by singing one of our favourite song or some such thing, they’ll become second nature in no time.”

Start small and go slowly,bit by bit. This would be what Brian Jeffrey Fogg, professor at Stanford University, referred to as ‘baby steps’ in his book Tiny Habits. Armayones said: “It’s about doing a little bit more each time, always keeping in mind that our commitment with ourselves is merely to reach tiny goals. For example, if I want to start exercising at home but am finding it hard, I could start with the ‘baby step’ of dancing to my favourite song for a few seconds. It’s a small victory that lets me see that I can be active and stay in shape, no matter how small the effort might be, and gradually build up from there.” Professor Fogg’s strategy also recommends carrying out this new behaviour at a key time during the day, for example, after the round of applause for our healthcare workers every day at 8 pm. It also stresses the importance of celebrating our small successes. “It’s about small celebrations: giving ourselves that congratulatory pat on the back, a little cheer or whatever we feel is appropriate,” said Armayones, going on to add, “If we do it that way, we’ll undoubtedly have the new habit firmly adopted much sooner than expected. It’s easy, trying it doesn’t cost us anything, and, what’s even better, it works.”

Informing about habit-forming strategies to fight the spread of COVID-19

Organizations of all shapes and sizes are fulfilling their responsibility and helping to inform the public about the actions and trustworthy information that will help us overcome the crisis. One of these is the UOC’s very owneHealth Center (eHC), a research centre whose mission is to empower and equip citizens and professionals with technologies so they can lead the paradigm shift in health. When the coronavirus crisis hit, the eHealth Center decided to publish tips and digital resources on adopting healthy habits on Twitter to drive home the importance of good practices like handwashing, not touching our faces and other habits recommended by the health authorities.

You can follow the series of resources posted by the eHC at @eHealthUOCor with the hashtag#eHCovid19U. There you will have access to practical, trustworthy information in Catalan, Spanish and English while the preventive measure to combat the coronavirus are in force.