Health

What Is “Skin Hunger”?

| 01/19/2021

skin hunger Illustration by Yadi Liu

For this Valentine’s Day, our theme is Stay Tender: There’s nothing quite like a personal touch, especially at a time when personal touch is hard to come by. Don’t be afraid to reach out with a little tenderness—to others, and to yourself.

Kory Floyd has never been more popular. A professor of communication at the University of Arizona, Floyd researches affection and loneliness. Since the pandemic began, friends and journalists have been asking him: Why are we so hungry for touch?

“I’m hearing a lot from people that this has been one of the biggest surprises about the pandemic: They didn’t realize they would miss touch as much as they have,” says Floyd. 

Whether you call it skin hunger (the popular phrase) or touch deprivation (the clinical term), the pandemic has awakened a longing for touch that many of us haven’t quite felt before. Skin hunger can feel as sharp and heavy as hunger for food. It can make us irritable, sluggish, aggressive, sleepless, and sad. It can even damage our immune systems.

Skin hunger is akin to the desire for sex, and might come alongside that desire, but it’s a different feeling. “When adults talk about touch, or the absence of touch in their lives, it is often considered or positioned as the absence of sexual contact,” says Joanne Margaret Durkin, an Australian healthcare researcher who has published on touch deprivation during COVID-19. Yet humans need, and crave, a whole spectrum of friendly touch, from an “incidental stroke of an arm” to a casual hug or hand hold, Durkin says.

In pre-pandemic times, millions of Americans routinely felt lonely—as many as three out of five, according to some surveys. Since the pandemic, for many, this loneliness has taken a searing new form. With many of us going months with far less social touch than we’re accustomed to—or none at all—many of us are ravenous. Yet with the virus still raging, we’re unlikely to resume “normal” social interactions anytime soon.  

We are not, however, doomed to the worst effects of touch deprivation. From finding an intimacy buddy to bonding with a pet, there are many safer ways we can nourish our natural desire for touch. First, let’s understand where touch hunger comes from, and why we all deserve this important form of care.

At its most obvious and painful, touch hunger can feel like a literal craving, much like food hunger.

Touch Is a Basic Need

We tend to think of touch as pleasant, but in a different category than shelter and food—after all, we technically can live without it. But touch is a basic health need, just like other kinds of social interaction. “There’s something special about touch,” says Floyd. “It supports our wellness in ways that verbal affection and other forms of verbal behavior just don’t.”

The need for touch begins in infancy. Babies who are given direct skin contact have higher oxytocin levels, a hormone that promotes wellbeing, and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has an overall negative effect on health. Infants who are touched more are healthier and more secure than touch-deprived peers.

As we grow, we’re naturally attuned to differentiate between gentle and unwanted forms of touch. Gentle touch—anything from a hug to someone brushing our hair to a pat on the arm—has a powerful positive effect on our mood. Hugging our friends, hugging our kids, guys patting each other on the back, the bro hug: these are all ways we show affection through tactile contact,” says Floyd. These kinds of positive touch can reduce overall stress and ultimately boost our immune systems.

In contrast, people who are deprived of touch experience more stress, depression, and anxiety. This can cause a chain reaction, increasing our heart rates and muscle tension and suppressing our bodies’ ability to fight disease. 

Babies and children who experience touch deprivation don’t grow as quickly as their peers, and touch-deprived pre-term babies are less likely to survive. Adolescents who are touch-deprived get into more fights than their gently touched peers. Especially for brown and Black children, this can lead to school discipline or even incarceration—an incredibly cruel way to treat people who simply hunger for tenderness.

Touch Deprivation During Pandemic Times

People who live alone are most likely to experience touch deprivation, both in normal times and during social distancing. Two age groups are particularly hard-hit: young adults and elderly people. “It’s somewhat understandable that the elderly would feel lonely,” says Floyd. After all, many elderly people live alone, and have survived the deaths of spouses, friends, and even children. 

Adolescent loneliness appears, at first glance, more puzzling. During the pandemic, many adolescents are unable to go to school, and thus feel cut off from their peer groups. But even in pre-pandemic times, young people experience high rates of loneliness. “You don’t have to be alone to be lonely,” says Floyd. “Many people can relate to the feeling of being surrounded by people, but still feeling very deprived of meaningful affection.” 

“Hug a pillow or a blanket, something that is soft, something that puts pressure against you when you hug it.”

How can you tell if you’re touch-deprived? At its most obvious and painful, touch hunger can feel like a literal craving, much like food hunger. But touch hunger can show up in sneakier ways, as well. While we know and can articulate how it feels to not talk to someone for a few days, a week or a month, we don’t often have the words to explain how it feels to not touch someone for a similar amount of time,” Durkin says. This might include feeling general malaise, feeling depressed or anxious, or feeling restless. You may also have trouble sleeping.  

If you’re noticing any of these signs of touch deprivation, Floyd has advice for you: You’re not alone, and the experience of social distancing will not last forever. Until then, here are some safer ways to ease your touch hunger. 

Enjoy Warm Touch Within Your Pod

The people in your household or pod are the safest people to experience affectionate touch with. If you already have a warm relationship with these people, it can help to talk about touch deprivation. “Sharing experiences is also important,” Durkin says. 

If you feel comfortable doing so, ask others in your pod for touch—whether that’s more hugs, exchanging massages, or snuggling on the couch. 

If you and the people you live with don’t feel comfortable with affectionate touch, or if you are craving sexual touch, you might consider finding an intimacy buddy. This can be a romantic partner, but it doesn’t have to be. Most importantly, this is a negotiated, affirmatively consensual relationship with another person who also wants intimate touch, with whom you’ve come to mutual agreements over COVID safety practices. 

Cuddle With a Pet

There’s a reason why U.S. animal shelters have seen record numbers of adoptions during the pandemic. “We can get a lot of benefit from cuddling with and touching and petting an animal that’s friendly to us,” says Floyd. 

While nothing quite fills the void left by human touch, a warm relationship with an animal—particularly a mammal—can stimulate oxytocin. In one study, 90% of participants identified warm touch as one of the most beneficial aspects of pet ownership. Caring for a critter can also give you a sense of purpose and routine. 

If you don’t like animals or don’t have access to a pet, being close to nature can help ease some of the restlessness. Take regular walks to a nearby park or natural landscape. Plant a garden or care for a houseplant, and watch it as it thrives under your attention. 

Practice Loving Self-Touch

Touching yourself with kindness can help restore some of the security touch deprivation takes from us. Masturbation is, of course, one wonderful kind of self-touch. It can also be lovely to explore other kinds of stress-relieving sensation. You can practice self-massage to ease tense muscles; enjoy the sensations of a warm bath; or stroke the body in a gentle way, such as when applying lotion. 

Soft objects can also help. “Hug a pillow or a blanket, something that is soft, something that puts pressure against you when you hug it,” says Floyd. You might want to invest in a body pillow, a luxurious comforter, or a weighted blanket. 

Enjoy Movement

Like touch, physical exercise stimulates the release of oxytocin, and improves our mood, energy levels, and overall sense of well-being. Research has shown that outdoor exercise can prevent some of the worst effects of touch deprivation. 

There are hidden possibilities for connection within the apparent bleakness of social distancing.

It’s important that this movement be truly enjoyable for you. Many of us have a fraught relationship to exercise as part of a fatphobic diet culture, where it’s used as a form of punishment or discipline, especially for people with larger bodies. 

In contrast, this movement should be gentle, loving, and pleasurable. Listen to what your body wants: Are your limbs antsy? Do you want to stretch, to walk, to sprint? Let your body be your guide.   

Practice Gratitude 

Both Floyd and Durkin remind us that substitutes for human touch are just that: substitutes. They won’t quite give us the comfort of the real thing, but they can help tide us over until a time when more touch is possible again. 

There are hidden possibilities for connection within the apparent bleakness of social distancing. When Floyd talks to people who feel deprived of connection with their loved ones, he advises them to reframe the situation. “Often when people feel they are deprived of affection writ large, not just deprived of touch, it’s because they’re missing a lot of the ways their loved ones are showing affection,” he says. We may wish our loved one hugged us more, but not notice how they cook us breakfast, clean the house, compliment us, or celebrate our accomplishments as expressions of love.

Similarly, we can practice gratitude for the new kinds of affection we are experiencing during the pandemic—even if those gestures are from a physical distance. We may have reconnected with old friends or distant relatives through regular video calls, or started writing letters for the first time in years. We may exchange seeds in the mail, or appreciate nature together.

“We can show our love for other people in a wide variety of ways— and we do,” says Floyd. “When we open our minds to that broader range of behavior, we come to realize we’re not as deprived as we thought we were.”

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