We were “Touch-Starved” long before COVID-19

How deprivation of human touch is affecting our mental health.

Originally published in Invisible Illness.

As humans, we crave to be touched. From birth up until today, our innate need for physical human contact remains.

Being “touch-starved” — also known as having “skin hunger” or “touch deprivation” — occurs when a person experiences little or no touch from others — and it can be more damaging to the psyche than you may have realized. Thanks to modern living and current cultural norms, most of us are at risk of this at the best of times — let alone in the context of the pandemic, where many of us are facing longer periods than ever without face-to-face human interaction at its most basic level.

But why is human touch so important and what can we do to improve our mental wellbeing under the current restrictions?

Our human touch crisis predates the pandemic

Much of Western society was already moving away from human touch in many ways — with us turning to technology and sexualizing touch in all its forms to such a point that we often feel too uncomfortable to even enter into each others’ spaces — never mind dare to give a friendly touch on the arm or give a spontaneous hug when the situation calls for it.

With the UK, the US and Nordic countries particularly hit by the cultural aspect (as opposed to more “touchy-feely” countries such as France and Italy) with us distracting ourselves increasingly — even from friends and family — opting for less hands-on forms of expressing affection — we may not have even realized we were missing something…

Fast-forward to today, with the ongoing pandemic demonizing human touch even further — giving us all an actual concrete reason to stand back from one another, many of us find ourselves dipping into a mental health crisis without perhaps even knowing why.

Although as always — and especially right now — there are various reasons why one might find their mental health start to slip — I argue that for many of us, a lack of human touch could well be a key contributor. And considering that I, myself am “not really a hugger,” and am guilty of distancing myself physically, even within my close relationships, due to my odd British tendency to shy away from overt expressions of affection, perhaps — I am still telling you that this mindset is not doing our mental health any favors!

Why is human touch so important?

Touch is commonly thought of as one single sense, but it is actually much more complex than that. Some nerve endings recognize an itch, while others respond to vibration, and others to pain, pressure, and different textures. And then there’s one that exists exclusively to recognize a gentle, stroking touch we associate with affection.

All positive touch is considered to be beneficial. Losing out on even the most basic forms of human touch — as we are especially at the moment under the current circumstances — from workplace handshakes, to friendly hugs — can result in these feelings of “touch starvation.” Scientists have found that a nerve ending, called C-tactile afferents, recognizes, and thus triggers our brain to respond to, any form of positive touch.

“Touch is our first language and one of our core needs. The touch of a safe, trusted loved one can alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of well-being without doing anything else. Though nothing changes [and] nothing is ‘fixed,’ when appropriately touched we tend to feel much better”

— Says clinical psychologist, Dr. Jon Reeves.

The health benefits of human touch

Skin-to-skin contact is vital for not only mental and emotional health, but physical health, too. In early life, touch is believed to be crucial for building self-esteem, bonding, and forming healthy relationships by stimulating the production of “happy hormones” oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. Even today, these same hormones are released every time you are consensually hugged, patted on the pack, hold someone’s hand — or even when someone does your hair or make-up — leaving you feeling more relaxed and fulfilled, warding off and low moods or bouts of depression.

When you feel stressed or anxious, the body releases the stress hormone, cortisol, which not only sparks unpleasant symptoms such as heart palpitations, stomach cramps, and insomnia — but it can also throw off your other hormones, affecting fertility and the menstrual cycle, and even hinder your immune system. One of the biggest things touch can do is reduce such stress, allowing the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems to work the way they should.

Friendly human touch such as hugging and hand-holding can also maintain a healthy heart rate and blood pressure by stimulating pressure receptors that transport signals to the vagus nerve. This nerve connects the brain to the rest of the body and uses signals to slow the pace of the nervous system to a healthy, sustainable level.

Yes, introverts need human touch too

What if you don’t particularly like being touched — can you still be touch starved? As discussed in my previous articles on MBTI personality types and the associated self-care measures for each kind of personality — we are all different and have different needs to maintain our emotional wellbeing. Those who are more introverted may indeed survive just fine — and even thrive — on less human interaction than their extroverted counterparts.

But although an introvert may enjoy their alone time and even not want to be with others for a great portion of their time, we all have the same fundamental human needs and biological responses to human touch — or lack thereof. As such, we should all be making sure we are addressing this need — whatever our personality type, and whatever those needs may look like to each of, personally.

How to deal with a lack of human touch

Of course, nothing can fully replace real human touch — but those of us self-isolating — particularly alone (or simply with roommates who you aren’t exactly on cuddling terms with…) — we temporarily have to get a little creative.

For instance, if you are blessed enough to have a pet dog, cat, or other tactile animal sharing your home, then spending time touching and hugging your furry friend can be just as soothing for many of us as hugging a fellow human. This is why those self-isolating with a pet at home tend to be faring a lot better emotionally!

If you’re not lucky enough to have a friendly animal to hand, you could try finding some old keepsakes and gifts from friends and family to keep visible during your time spent alone. Objects with sentimental value — whether it’s a childhood toy, old letters, postcards, or birthday cards, or cherished photographs — these items can soothe loneliness by reminding you that you are loved, and that this period of touch starvation won’t last forever.

Some other self-soothing exercises you could be trying out are:

  • ASMR — to mimic the sensations you get from human touch.
  • Treating yourself to a weighted blanket or a scented bath — to replicate a sense of warmth and comfort.
  • Meditating, or exercising — to improve your mental clarity and mood.

Furthermore, try to appreciate sounds, smells, and feelings that you may normally overlook. You may be limited right now in that even touching things outside of your home is not the best idea, but next time you go on a walk or even open a window, pay close attention to the sounds of the birds, the smell of the grass, and the feeling of the breeze on your face.

More than anything else, as humans, we crave to feel. And if we can’t get that from a loved one for the time being, then we must get it from within as well as the abundance of our surroundings. And let’s hope that come the end of this crisis, we all have a renewed sense of appreciation and respect for these basic — and yet often overlooked — human needs.


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