Isolation and social distancing have put a stop to something, as humans, we need regularly: physical affection. We’re not just talking about sensual touch (although, that is also lacking for many people too), but rather something as simple as a hug, a kiss on the cheek or a pat on the back.
Craving physical touch is called skin hunger, or touch deprivation. According to Healthline, it “occurs when a person experiences little to no touch from other living things.”
For many people, this is their reality right now. For those who live alone or who are high risk and need to self-isolate due to COVID-19, they might not have been hugged or touched by another human in months.
According to Dr. Vivienne Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the University of Canberra, humans are “hardwired to seek out human touch.”
“When we hug someone, that physical contact releases a hormone in the body called oxytocin,” she told the ABC.
“Oxytocin makes us feel warm and nice. It makes us feel relaxed, feel positive. So psychologically we feel like we can trust a person, we feel warm towards a person and we can feel that love effect.
“That’s why people go back for more. For human beings, it’s important to have regular touch.”
Dr. Lewis said experiencing cravings for touch — as you might with food — is also extremely common for those living alone.
“Somebody in the middle of COVID-19, living by themselves and they’ve had no contact with anybody else, their skin is actually craving touch, and craving that feeling of being warm, and being loved and being cared for,” she said.
When we’re stressed, our body produces the stress hormone cortisol. According to Healthline, human touch can help lower the hormone, which explains why we feel so inclined to hug a loved one or hold their hand when something crappy happens. A study of 51 couples from 2008 found that intimacy between the couples was associated with lower daily cortisol levels.
Something as simple as a handshake can calm bodily functions, like your heart rate and blood pressure. Touch has also been shown to stimulate pressure receptors that transport signals from the brain to the rest of the body and slow the pace of the nervous system — literally calming your body down.
Touch is also a great way to manage loneliness and something as simple as a pat on the back from a stranger has been shown to help reduce social exclusion.
Lack of touch can have a massive impact on your physical, mental and emotional health. While there’s no way to know if skin hunger is the reason behind these symptoms (especially given the current world climate), the overwhelming feeling of touch deprivation is loneliness.
According to Healthline, other symptoms of skin hunger include feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and difficulty sleeping.
It’s just not possible for many people to access physical touch at the moment, so you have to get creative in lieu of hugs and kisses. Solo touch is the next best thing so experiment with actions like cuddling a pillow or stuffed animal, hugging a pet (should you have one), performing self-massage, masturbating, or wrapping yourself up in a heavy blanket.
A weighted blanket would be perfect for the current situation, as the added pressure makes you feel secure and calm.
“You may have to be creative based on your physical ability, but ultimately the point is to spend some extra time in affectionate contact with your skin,” sex and relationship therapist, Shadeen Francis, told Allure.
And, while Zoom calls and text messages don’t replace the feeling of a hug, maintaining your relationships virtually will keep you feeling connected to your loved ones when you can’t be with them in person.