Mental Health: Skin Hunger

Mental Health: Skin Hunger

By Natalie Taylor

Human beings are inherently social creatures—from the moment we are born until we die, we have a need to be touched. This is why babies deprived of touch do not thrive, and why prisoners in solitary confinement often report craving human contact as much as freedom.

The Touch Research Institute of Miami University has conducted many studies related to the topic. When we feel endangered or anxious, a gentle touch brings comfort. Studies show that people perform tasks better when they are clapped on the back beforehand. This goes back to the feeling of comfort from the touch of a caregiver when you were a child. Physiologically, touch causes the release of oxytocin, known as the “love hormone.” Oxytocin creates good feelings, and has been shown to fortify our immune system. Without touch, humans deteriorate physically and emotionally.

Even prior to the pandemic, many industrialized nations had curtailed touch in schools, the work place, and in public institutions. Now, with social distancing, those who live alone find themselves deprived of human touch, a condition called “skin hunger.”

For some, COVID-19 induced skin hunger feels like grief—a state of extreme emotional sensibility, stress, and sadness. Many of those alone remember the last day and even time when they had an embrace, a handshake, and a pat on the back. Although technology has made incredible advances in allowing us to communicate with others in an auditory and visual way—Zoom, Face Time, etc., it cannot substitute for the skin-on-skin contact, which we naturally crave.

There are some strategies to reduce skin hunger. Getting as much exercise as you can, even walking around your room; a scalp massage; or rubbing moisturizer into your face is all ways to move the skin—part of what touch does for us. Pets are invaluable for those alone, because hugging or petting a living creature can ameliorate the need for human touch. When you pet a dog, you’re also moving your own skin and experiencing pressure stimulation. Still, it is only a small measure. Human beings need the touch of other human beings and one has to wonder if a post-Covid pandemic world will ever bring us back to the old days.

Many believe that we will continue with a no-contact society, perhaps forever. Some believe that the handshake—let alone the ubiquitous kiss on the cheek, is on its way out. The question then is how will this touch deprivation impact our lives and our attitudes toward others? No one knows the answer. Like the pandemic itself, it will most likely be a “learn as you go” experience.