Over the past nearly two years of the pandemic, we have collectively had to adjust our lives in unexpected ways. With social distancing becoming the norm, many people have experienced less physical touch than ever before. This has led to what’s called “skin hunger,” or becoming “touch starved.”
Being separated from close friends and family members for long periods of time, and then not being able to have physical contact with them when you do see these people in person, has an impact. In fact, many people, especially those who live alone and naturally lack this physical closeness with others, report craving human contact over the course of this Covid-19 ordeal.
Touch is an important source of pleasure for people, whether you’re hugging a parent or child or engaging in an intimate moment with a romantic partner. When you’re touch deprived, you are missing out on a biological need and that can have a major impact on your mental health.
Unfortunately, this is something known all too well by the immunocompromised, or those that have outstanding health issues. They’ll often be more susceptible to skin hunger, as they need to remain more isolated than others as a matter of course.
While this article won’t provide medical advice for what to do when you’re experiencing skin hunger, it will outline what exactly skin hunger is, why it matters and what you can do if you’re experiencing it. What’s certain is that sometimes, your own skin just isn’t enough!
What does it mean to be touch starved?
Skin hunger essentially means that you experience little to no physical contact from other living beings, but especially from other humans.
Human touch is important for our nervous systems and brains because of the pleasure reward we receive from all kinds of touch, from platonic to sexual. Without the pleasure and oxytocin release induced by touch, people can feel more isolated and depressed, among other symptoms that will be further discussed below.
The flip side of experiencing skin hunger is being what’s called “touched out.” This is a common phenomenon among new mothers who spend the majority of their days holding their babies (and potentially breast feeding every few hours as well).
When you’re touched out you are experiencing too much touch and feel like you need more time in your days when no one is touching your body, or is even near your personal space.
Does skin hunger only apply to sensual touch?
Skin hunger isn’t analogous to sexual longing. Being starved for touch means that you are craving any kind of physical contact to the point that you’re feeling a negative shift in your mental health.
There are so many ways to give and receive touch in non-sensual ways: Getting a massage, shaking hands, hugging a friend, giving high fives—the list goes on. This is why touch starvation has become more of an issue over these past almost two years.
People have become not only more isolated during the pandemic but also more wary of spreading germs. The small gestures of touch that we were all once accustomed to can still feel too risky for many.
Why touch is essential
Touch is one of our basic human senses. It’s just as important as seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. And when it comes to mental health, you could argue that touch is essential.
The importance of oxytocin
When people touch each other, even in passing with a high five, the brain stimulates the pathways for oxytocin, the hormone associated with trust and empathy, dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and serotonin, which is the body’s built-in antidepressant.
Oxytocin in particular is a hormone you don’t want in short supply since it contributes to your ability to handle stress and to your overall well being. When you take away touch, your brain doesn’t get to produce this feel-good chemical as often. Research on rats has shown that non-noxious sensory stimulation (as in, low intensity touch) that sparks oxytocin production can eradicate stress, increase social behavior and decrease blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Touch is important for babies
Other studies have shown that touch can ease feelings of loneliness and helps slow down the nervous system, which can be beneficial for further easing the effects of stress and anxiety.
Touch even plays a role in the outcome of babies who are admitted to neonatal intensive care units, or NICU. Babies who experience touch from their caregivers and parents have stronger outcomes and see better chances of improvement than babies who are more isolated. Touch also appears to affect attachment and brain growth in young children. This is why having babies, especially premature ones, are often lain on their parent’s naked chests – to deepen the bond and provide all the related benefits.
In short, touch matters—a lot. Humans are not meant to be isolated from other people for long periods of time. When these periods are necessary, like in a time of a pandemic, people can feel the effects of not being touched, resulting in skin hunger, and potentially, self-soothing behaviors like gambling, shopping, over-eating, or the use of drugs and alcohol.
Signs of skin hunger
It can be difficult to officially diagnose skin hunger because the signs of touch deprivation are similar to other mental health conditions. Especially in these times where life is stressful and unpredictable, it’s hard to say if skin hunger is the actual reason for the following symptoms.
If you’ve been particularly isolated from other people, it’s worth checking in with yourself to see if these signs might help you better understand your need for human touch.
The main symptoms of skin hunger are:
- Feeling anxious
- Feeling depressed
- Feeling deprived of affection
- Feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness
- Feeling a high level of stress
- Feeling like you’re not satisfied in your relationships
- Feeling avoidant toward friends and family members
- Feeling tired all the time and having a hard time sleeping soundly
If you’re having any of these symptoms, it’s worth talking to your mental health provider (or finding one) to understand where these feelings are coming from and how you can best deal with them during these unprecedented times.
Overcoming anxiety and depression in particular may require help from a professional. If you’re feeling especially overwhelmed or unwell, don’t try to weather the emotional storm on your own.
Remedies to fix skin hunger
The short answer to solving skin hunger is to get touched by others. However, this isn’t always possible right now, especially for those aforementioned immunocompromised people.
The following ideas may not work for everyone but they are meant to give a breadth of suggestions for solving skin hunger so that you can find the physical contact that works for your unique needs.
Commit to more touch
For those who live with other people, finding opportunities to touch can help ease the issue of skin hunger. The isolating nature of the pandemic combined with feeling perhaps more annoyed with or desentized to the others in your household may have caused you and your loved ones to stop touching each other as much.
Make touch part of your daily routine. Greet family members with hugs when they arrive home. Hold hands with your partner. Hug your kids longer and allow them to sit on your lap when they ask. Ask your roommate to high five you. Sit closer to your mom on the couch when you’re watching TV. Whoever you live with, chances are they’re also feeling the effects of skin hunger and could use some physical touch, too.
While animals aren’t the same as people, petting a dog or cat has been shown to increase oxytocin levels in research studies and will provide a feel-good hormone boost when you’re feeling lonely.
If you don’t have a pet, visit an animal shelter or adoption center to get some time with furry friends (you may just end up coming out with one of your own!). You can also offer to pet sit for friends and borrow an animal for a weekend to help you out of your skin hunger rut.
Get a massage or facial
When you’re comfortable with the covid situation, you can book a massage or facial at your local spa to get a dose of relaxing human touch. Even a 20 minutes foot or scalp massage can provide the calming effects of touch and help sooth your nervous system. A foot massage is also a fairly low risk activity since your massage therapist won’t be face to face with you (and you’ll ideally both be masked).
Use a massage tool
If getting a professional massage isn’t in your budget, or just isn’t possible right now for you health or risk-assessment wise, invest in a simple massage tool to give you the sensation of touch.
You can get a device that you put your feet in for a foot massage, a massaging pad you can drape over your office chair or a neck massager—there are a number of possibilities depending on what type of massager will help you relax and destress.
While you won’t have the human contact aspect of massage, you will get the relaxing and de-stressing perk from a tool or device, which is better than nothing.
Try dry brushing
Dry brushing has roots in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical system, and has been practiced for literally thousands of years. Basically, you take a dry brush and rub it gently over your skin to activate blood flow and exfoliate the surface. (Dry brushing also activates your lymphatic system, giving you an added bonus of reducing inflammation in the body.)
All of this provides you with an opportunity for touch that provides stimulation for your nervous system. It’s not only relaxing but it’s soothing as well.
Give yourself a gua sha treatment
Gua sha is another ancient skin treatment, though this one originates in China. Using a small, smooth tool that glides over your face and neck you stimulate your skin, promote blood flow and come away with a healthy glow. It’s another way to experience touch at home while also benefiting from relaxation and beauty benefits as well.
Get your hair done
Many of us gave up getting professional haircuts during the pandemic, which saved many people money and time. But not getting your hair cut by a barber or a stylist also deprived you of an easy way to get that hormone boost from another person’s touch.
If you’re feeling comfortable, schedule a professional haircut, or even just a wash and blow dry or styling so you can reap the benefits of physical contact from it. Bonus: Your hair will probably look way better than what you’ve been doing to it by yourself.
Use a weighted blanket
A weighted blanket can be helpful with anxiety and trouble sleeping in general. If you’re also experiencing skin hunger, a weighted blanket can feel like a full body hug, giving you a sense of grounding. While it doesn’t replace a snuggle from a live human being, this kind of blanket can make you feel more secure and give you comfort.
Connect emotionally to other people
While this tip doesn’t have anything to do with physical touch, it’s important to get your emotional needs met during periods of skin hunger. Push yourself to reach out to others via email or text if you live alone and feel isolated. (Even call people if you feel so inclined.)
Make sure your social media habits are healthy and that you’re engaging with people and content that make you feel good about yourself, not less than. Wave hello to neighbors, delivery drivers and any other humans you might see when you’re taking a walk or getting the mail. Even if these are superficial interactions they add up to helping you feel more like part of the community, which can do wonders for your mental state.
The power of touch
Experiencing skin hunger can be emotionally painful. While the pandemic has highlighted touch starvation as a condition, feeling a longing for touch can happen even in normal times. Know that you’re not alone, especially if you live by yourself and work remotely. Many people, especially now, are experiencing this.
Remember that skin hunger won’t last forever. If you’re longing for a romantic partner, you will find the right person one day. If you’re missing friends and family members that you’re not able to see as often right now, know that this situation will change and shift as time goes on.
Do the best you can to take care of your mental health and try some of the ideas for remedying feeling touch starved. Sometimes, the hardest part is identifying the problem and taking that first step toward helping yourself. Once you know what you need, you can determine how to best quench your touch cravings and start to feel better.
Still feeling a bit down? Read these lonely quotes to boost your mood.