mental health

'Skin Hunger' Is Real and It Can Affect You Mentally

Our longing for human touch is wired into our bodies and without it, the “skin hunger” or touch deprivation can hit us hard.
October 21, 2020, 12:26pm
hands touch coronavirus pandemic

For a person like me who’s not really fond of technology and the new trends people are obsessed with these days to feel connected with their friends, I constantly keep thinking about how things are going to be once this is over.

Apart from the many things I look forward to—travel, going back to college, going out to eat—a simple thing I once took for granted and now am waiting for is just hugging the people I love. High-fiving my little cousin, putting my arm around my friend, mock-punching the sibling.

For a lot of us, our skin is the means through which we intuit the energies of others, in a way FaceTiming or calls could never do. We also want to comfort and be comforted through our skin and when this hasn't happened in months, one of our most used senses begins to starve.

“Skin hunger” or touch deprivation occurs when a person experiences little to no touch from other living things. Often, this isn’t considered a real problem but studies have found that they can have some serious and long-lasting effects. Touch is pretty much a fundamental mode of human communication. Be it a mother cradling her baby, lovers intertwining their fingers, or best friends hugging each other—a lot of how we connect with other human beings is born out of touch. This is also why prisoners in solitary confinement have been reported of as craving human touch almost as much as liberty.

“Touch deprivation can have negative impacts—it could lead to a drop in less dopamine, and we would feel less connected to people,” says Aanchal Narang, a counselling psychologist and founder of Another Light Counselling. “Warmth makes us feel connected to people. Any amount of daily activity cannot make up for it, whether it is something as simple as someone shaking your hand or you going to get a haircut—it all matters. Now that we’re working from home and cannot meet friends, skin hunger is getting real.”

With the pandemic making even regular grocery store visits stressful, the isolation has left many of us craving for that human touch. And for those living alone, this unfulfilled desire to find comfort in someone else’s touch could be especially tough.

“If I think of the months before March, every time I felt alone or lonely, my friends were around me,” says 23-year-old Navya, who is currently studying MBA in Connecticut and has been staying alone since the last seven months. “They’d give me a tight hug or a pat on the back that somehow helped me to feel at least a little better for the time being. But now it’s a distant dream. Because the flights got cancelled and I couldn’t go back home when the pandemic struck, I thought I’d just stay here and focus on my studies. But now, there are days when I just feel like running away from all of this because it’s just impossible for me to concentrate and stay alone all the time.”

According to scientists, we have a nerve ending called C-tactile afferents that “responds optimally to slowly moving, gentle touch, typical of a caress.” This touch also increases release of oxytocin—also called the “cuddle hormone”—which promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding, laying the biological foundation for connecting with others. And while sexual touch plays its own role in providing pleasure, the touch we’re talking about here is simply platonic. The absence of it, on the other hand, increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects.

“In a country like India, we are quite tactile in our platonic friendships and have been deprived of them for so long,” says Rhea Gandhi, a psychotherapist and chairperson of the Indian Chapter of the International Attachment Network, to VICE. “When stressed, our body releases a hormone called cortisol and one of the ways to calm people is through touch. 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.”

Failing to experience frequent positive touch as a child may affect the development of the  oxytocin which might result in damaging intimacy and social skills, although this isn’t true for everyone. According to a study published in Comprehensive Psychology, people whose parents were regular huggers were more likely to hug people in adulthood.

A lot of people link touch with trust and if they don’t trust a certain person, they’re unlikely to want that person to touch them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like being touched. Not liking being touched can have various reasons. Not being really fond of touch is sometimes reported by people who identify themselves as asexual or by the those on the neurodiverse spectrum.

“I was alone in Bengaluru for six months and my office work just became work from home,” says 25-year-old Arjun. “It wasn’t just difficult; it was too much to even take. I’d often call my friends or my mom and would constantly keep talking to them while working because that gave me a sense of relief and like someone was there with me. But this wasn’t really helpful for long. I came home to Delhi in August and it has been much better after that. Living with my family at least is helping. I can talk to my mom, go for a walk with her, hug her and it’s been much better after that.”

Touch can often calm other bodily functions such as blood pressure and our heart rate. It can also help tackle loneliness. Studies have shown that a gentle, positive touch from a stranger can also help in reducing the feelings of social exclusion.

“Often, sexual touch might not offer the same kind of comfort,” says Gandhi. “The [platonic touch] sensation is different from erotic touch. Touch, in India especially, is also linked closely with trust, especially for women. We often feel comforted when we are touched by those we consider safe, and that offers us a sense of security and connection.”

While technology has come to our rescue tremendously amid the pandemic, one thing it still can’t do is replicate or substitute the skin-on-skin contact. Even haptic technology that is used in stuff like sex toys and video games to mimic sensation, cannot reproduce the feel of a human touch.

However, there are strategies you can use to reduce skin hunger. One of them is with animals. “Being able to touch and be comforted by another living being is really helpful to quench this thirst in a touch desert. 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,” Gandhi added.

Even hugging a pillow can be helpful and can bring on warmth both from the pressure against your skin, which mimics touch from another person or pet, which your brain still interprets as an embrace. Massages, long showers, dancing, even just walking around your room are few activities that can help overcome touch hunger when you’re alone. Till the time we get to a place where the very things we loved aren’t also the things that boost the spread of the virus—hugs, handshakes, high-fives—hang in there. And maybe adopt an animal.

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