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Skin Hunger, Touch Starvation, and Hug Deprivation

How can you satisfy the need for touch during these times of social isolation?

Touch starvation creates agonizing conundrums. While there are many people who feel discomfort from being hugged or touched by others, there are many others who crave a warm embrace, a pat on the hand, or a comforting cuddle. The rising rate of COVID infections is causing us to think again about satisfying that need for touch as we weigh the risks of social connection against viral infection.

Humans braved the prehistoric elements by banding together and keeping in close contact through the night—to share the warmth of others as well as be more prepared to stave off predatory threats. Today, many of us still feel that ancient need to be surrounded by others and to feel a deep sense of satisfaction and security through human touch. When we are unable to satisfy the need for physical connection, the ache that results has been termed “hug deprivation,” “touch starvation,” “skin hunger,” and “affection deprivation.” Whatever we choose to name it, people know when they feel it.

Human touch is a legitimate physical and emotional need, although everyone has different levels of the longing for touch. There are, indeed, some who are repelled by physical touch, and so those who tend to throw a big bear hug around others should bear in mind that touch should not be forced on anyone and it’s always best to confirm that your embrace is welcome prior to moving too far too fast.

The benefits of human touch are many and it can act as a “magic bullet” for emotional distress. Being touched by someone we trust can lessen feelings of isolation, loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep disruptions. Not only does physical touch positively affect our emotional wellbeing, but a reassuring touch from another also has physiological benefits, including:

  1. Calming the nervous system
  2. Boosting dopamine production
  3. Positively influencing the serotonin system
  4. Spurring production of oxytocin, the bonding hormone
  5. Reducing the production of stress hormones (cortisol)
  6. Lowering blood pressure and heart rate
  7. Improving healing and decrease pain

Babies and children who experienced positive physical contact tended to show less aggressive behavior as they grew up. It is hypothesized that these kids didn’t need to engage in physical fighting or conflict to experience physical contact with others. Failure to thrive in infants can often be traced back to inadequate physical touch. Decades ago, researchers found that infant monkeys preferred a soft cloth-covered wire model of a “mother” over a wire model that offered food. We long for comfort and when social isolation obstructs the fulfillment of that need, it can be difficult for many to bear.

Ways to Enjoy Physical Comfort When Physically Alone

  1. Take a really warm shower and enjoy the physical sensation of the water coursing over your body and the steam from the heat
  2. Holding a warm cup of coffee, tea, or just hot water can bring a sense of calm and inner warmth
  3. Touching pleasing textures—a fuzzy blanket, silky sheets, etc.—can satisfy touch hunger to some degree
  4. Kneading dough can be soothing and it’s physically satisfying to work the dough and feel it rise under your hands
  5. Favorite lotions and bath bombs can provide sensory pleasures
  6. Weighted blankets have grown in popularity and provide a sense of being embraced
  7. Give yourself a foot massage, face massage, or hand massage to feel the sense of touch
  8. Run your foot over a tennis ball or use a back scratcher to scratch your back

When you can't get close to the people you love, having pets in the home can be a great salve for loneliness. Adopting a dog or cat might not only provide satisfaction to touch starvation, but it also may provide valuable companionship. If you plan to adopt, be sure to consider whether or not you really are ready and able to commit to a pet—too often, holiday adoptions can result in overfilled shelters after the holiday excitement and puppy/kitten stage has passed.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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