Humans have a need to touch and be touched by other humans. This refers to all kinds of touch, not just sensual or sexual touching. This includes what some people refer to as “platonic touch”, such as handshakes, friendly hugs, cuddling or even pats on the back.
From the moment we are born, as babies, we depend on touch for physical and emotional wellbeing. That is the reason babies are given to their mothers after birth for direct skin contact. This is critical not only for bonding, but it also activates the hormone oxytocin (the so called “love hormone”) which boosts the immune system and helps calm the nervous system. Touching also reduces the hormone cortisol (the stress hormone), thereby reducing blood pressure and heart rate.
That need to be touched and touch others stays with us for the rest of our lives (some of us are more touchy-feely, some are less so, but the need is still there). When we are stressed out our bodies have high levels of cortisol. A very easy way to release oxytocin is through skin-to-skin contact.
Some countries and societies are more touch-averse than others. Due to a combination of gender concepts, social policies or various cultural factors and biases physical contact and touching can be considered inappropriate. In addition, increased technology use (such as phone use, social media and texting) diminishes the opportunities for being physically close to others.
When there is a prolonged deprivation of skin-to-skin contact, we develop a desire for it. That is called skin hunger. This is also sometimes referred to as being “touch starved”, “touch isolated” or “touch deprived”.
Skin Hunger has become even more pronounced during the ongoing global pandemic. We are socially distancing and isolating from each other. As a result, we are suffering from skin hunger more than usual. This is especially hard for people who are single, who may not have touched another human in many months.
How can I tell I am suffering from skin hunger/touch starvation?
There is no single symptom and no easy or definitive way to know, but there are certain signs to look out for. These symptoms can include
- Feeling lonely or deprived of affection
- Depression or anxiety
- High levels of stress
- Low relationship satisfaction
- Difficulty sleeping
- Subconsciously simulating touch, such as taking long hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets or holding on to pets
What can I do to help with Skin Hunger?
There are multiple ways for you to increase or encourage physical touch in your day-to-day life (even though some might be tricky with social distancing rules in play)
- Greet people with handshakes or hugs and pat them on the back (provided that is in their comfort zone and socially acceptable)
- Get a massage or manicure. Both are great ways to enjoy skin-to-skin contact with another person.
- Hug people for 20 seconds (medical studies show that this is the point where oxytocin is released)
- Cuddle parties (they exist!)
- Sit close and/or cuddle up to your loved ones and avoid “negative” touching such as pinches or scratches or tickles (anything that would cause negative associations with touching)
- Get a weighted blanket. The added pressure can give you a sense of security or calmness