COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with others. Doctor and therapist visits have moved online. Birthday parties are held over Zoom. Grandparents have taken the plunge into Facetime so families can stay connected. And creative daters have moved their romance online. While all of these activities are crucial to keeping us connected, there’s one thing that can’t be replicated via video — human touch.
If you’re sheltered in place with a partner, family or other people, you may not be missing out on the joys of a simple hug or a romp in the sheets. But for others who are spending their quarantine time alone, the isolation may be getting to you both physically and emotionally. It turns out there’s a term for the difficulty you may be having missing out on physical touch from others.
What Is Skin Hunger?
Skin hunger, also referred to as touch starvation or touch deprivation, refers to the negative effects you may feel when you go for periods of time without physical contact with other humans. This could be days, weeks or months depending on the person. Touch deprivation can lead to mental health-related difficulties like increased stress, feelings of loneliness, depression or anxiety, difficulty with emotion regulation and trouble sleeping.
Related: Download The Mighty app to connect in real time with people who can relate to what you’re going through.
You may be experiencing touch starvation during the COVID-19 pandemic — but it can happen anytime — because touch is hard-wired into what makes mammals tick. And when we talk about touch deprivation or skin hunger, it doesn’t just refer to sex.
“It’s been shown that [touch is] a really important factor in our growth and development,” Sarah Schewitz, Psy.D., a Los Angeles-based psychologist and founder of Couples Learn, told The Mighty. “It definitely does not just mean sex. It could be holding hands, a hug, cuddling, kissing — it can be sexual or non-sexual touch.”
Schewitz pointed to Harry Harlow’s famous 1950s and ’60s-era psychological experiment on baby monkeys. The infant monkeys were removed from their real mothers and presented with a surrogate, a wire “mother” who had food and a soft “mother” covered in terry cloth. The baby monkeys consistently gravitated toward the comforting, soft mother. Harlow’s experiment suggested that physical comfort was also critical for a baby’s survival and development.
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Why Is Touch So Important?
Not only do humans need touch to survive as infants, just like many other animals, physical intimacy has benefits throughout our lives. While the reasons touch is so beneficial are complex, some of the benefits are thanks to how it impacts the chemicals in our nervous system, including the “love” or “cuddle” hormone oxytocin.
“There’s a lot of ways that oxytocin can be released in our bodies, and it’s a bonding hormone,” Schewitz said. “As humans, when we hug for 20 seconds or kiss for six seconds, oxytocin is released. But it also pushes cortisol, the stress hormone, out of our system. So physical touch can really help reduce stress.
A variety of research supports the necessity of touch for people to live their best lives. In one study, researchers investigated adults who reported receiving a hug on days when they faced conflict with others. The results suggested a correlation between less negative feelings and those who had received a hug.
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Another investigation studied people who received reiki, a hands-on practice, and its impact on factors such as heart rate and blood pressure. Among the small sample of participants, those who received reiki showed a significant decrease in heart rate and blood pressure.
What to Do If You’re Experiencing Touch Starvation
If you’re feeling skin hunger right now and meeting up with a loved one in person isn’t possible, there are ways you can meet some of your own needs for touch. It may not be the same as a real hug — or you may have sensory sensitivities that mean touch isn’t comfortable at all — but here are a few ways to get your touch needs met when you can’t get the real thing:
And, in the meantime, keep in mind you can still foster meaningful emotional connections with your loved ones, even when you’re physically far apart. Whether that’s cooking the same recipe together on FaceTime, having long conversations on the phone or sending handwritten letters, Schewitz said creativity can go a long way.
“There are many ways to bond, even long distance,” Schewitz said. “Long-distance couples do that all the time.”
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