The first time I experienced skin hunger, or touch deprivation, was during my first year living in Japan. Being suddenly immersed in a society with very little cultural propensity for physical touch had me feeling completely isolated from the rest of humanity. Like hunger or thirst, the feeling can be consuming and yet hard to explain. It comes in waves, and when it hits, it can leave you feeling like you’re going just a little mad.
This feeling, previously alien to so many of us, has now become a worldwide phenomenon, as countries across the globe lockdown for a second time in the wake of a coronavirus resurgence. But what actually is skin hunger, and why does it affect us so strongly?
From the moment we’re born, we’re wired for touch. Just like our senses of smell and sight, our sense of touch orients us in the world, and plays a massive role in how we interact with it. It’s also an essential part of communication and bonding – mothers and heir babies, lovers, friends all form connections through the sense of touch. This fundamental need for touch is why we’re so severely impacted by a lack of it.
Skin hunger has been shown to be connected to conditions like depression, anxiety, personality disorders and immune disorders. Not receiving touch also impacts our general health and overall happiness. Touch helps us connect to others, and also to boost our mood. It’s no wonder, then that prisoners kept in solitary confinement have been reported to crave human touch almost as much as freedom.
The phenomenon was first studied after the second world war – in monkeys anyway. Infant rhesus macaques were separated from their mothers and given the option of two inanimate surrogates: one made out of wire and wood (which had a bottle from which the baby monkeys could feed), and another covered in cloth (sans bottle). The baby monkeys overwhelmingly favoured being embraced by the cloth surrogate, even if that meant they wouldn’t get fed. This study led to the conclusion that human infants, and even adults, need touch almost as much as we need food and water in order to be completely healthy.
How does touch work?
“When you touch the skin,” Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami told Wired, “it stimulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to the vagus [a nerve in the brain.] As vagal activity increases, the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your brain waves show relaxation. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased.”
Being touched also released oxytocin, which not only makes us feel happier, but promotes trust and bonding – fundamental for building and maintaining relationships with those close to us. This is why children who don’t receive enough touch can grow to develop a number of developmental troubles and behavioural disorders.
“When stressed, our body releases a hormone called cortisol and one of the ways to calm people is through touch,” Rhea Gandhi, a psychotherapist and chairperson of the Indian Chapter of the International Attachment Network, told VICE Like when a baby is crying in a pram, they often quiet down when picked up and held close, making them feel safe. Skin to skin contact in childhood is the most comforting. This is the beginning for when touch begins to become soothing. In fact, research has shown that if we aren’t touched enough as babies, we might experience an array of developmental difficulties.”
We notice skin hunger when there’s a discrepancy between the amount of touch we want, and the amount we receive. Many people were already experiencing less that optimal amounts of human touch just by virtue of being alive in a time when much of our interaction happens through screens. The pandemic, having forced us all apart for the greater good, and in order to keep those we really really want to hug save, has exacerbated the situation massively.
And yet, not always easy to identify skin hunger, when the thing that’s missing isn’t concrete and visible. Particularly now, the anxiety from not receiving daily hugs could easily be confused with general pandemic worry.
“People are missing touch often without realising it,” Kory Floyd, a communication professor at the University of Arizona, told the BBC. “They feel a general sense of ill ease. In part because they haven’t had a hug in three weeks, they’ve not touched grandkids or been around their parents or spouse.”
Touch hunger can often present as other conditions, such as depression, and its one reason solitary confinement in prisons has garnered so many critics. neuroscientist Huda Akil identifies a lack of touch as one potential factor that might lead the brain to rewire itself and cause psychological problems in isolated prisoners. Being deprived of touch, some experts argue, is actually a kind of torture.
After having to remain separate from friends and family for weeks, this is something many have some to realise.Technology has certainly been helpful throughout the pandemic – Just imagine what things would have been like if we had to quarantine without it! But it can’t replace the touch of someone we care about, and as more and more people feel the lack of touch in their lives, we’ve had to figure out how to maintain our sanity in other ways.
Dealing with skin hunger
While alternatives to actual touch may not completely cure your skin hunger, they can help to alleviate some of the negative side-effects of it. These alternatives could include cuddling an animal, or hugging a pillow or stuffed animal instead.
“Being able to touch and be comforted by another living being is really helpful to quench this thirst in a touch desert,” said Ghandi. “Another tip I have is to perhaps try and self-soothe using an action you felt at peace with, when a parent/caregiver did it. For example, if your parents pat your head in a certain rhythm to make you fall asleep as a child, maybe try and do that for yourself.”
Going for a massage or taking a long shower or bath could also apply the warmth and pressure to your skin that triggers the release of those feel-good hormones. Even getting outdoor exercise has been proven to lessen the negative side-effects of not being touched. This may be why so many people took to exercise as a way to get through the difficult first weeks of lockdown. Visualisation exercises and meditation may also help calm those touch-starved nerves.
While the virus continues to run rampant and claim lives, many have decided its better to pretend it doesn’t exist. If you’re in the minority thats been staying home out of consideration for loved ones, you deserve praise and thanks and, by now, probably a good long hug.
If that physical contact is still off the table for you, try to be aware of how it’s affecting you. Are you feeling more anxious, depressed, anti-social than usual? Try to combat the touch starvation with some self soothing techniques, or by taking up some outdoor exercise. While it’s important to take care of your loved ones by keeping your distance, it’s equally important to take care of yourself – and that includes your mental wellbeing.
It’s been a long year, but we’ve made it this far. Give yourself a pat on the back. Or perhaps a massage.