Touched Starved

What is it?

Humans are wired to be touched. From birth until the day we die, our need for physical contact remains. 

Being touch starved — also known as skin hunger or touch deprivation — occurs when a person experiences little to no touch from other living things. 

Wait, that’s a real thing?

Indeed. The condition seems to be more common in countries that are becoming increasingly touch averse.

For example, a 2015 study measured to what degree people welcomed touch in five countries. Finland and France were found to be at the top, while the United Kingdom was at the bottom. 

Why cultures vary in their acceptance of touch, no one is sure. It may be due to the rise in technology use, a fear of touching being viewed as inappropriate, or cultural factors. 

But research from 2014 has found that missing out on regular human touch can have some serious and long-lasting effects.

Does it only apply to sensual touch?

Definitely not. Any and all positive touch is considered beneficial.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are losing out on workplace handshakes, friendly hugs, or pats on the back, which can result in feelings of touch starvation.

For some, the pandemic has also brought a decline in sensual touching, such as holding hands, back scratching, and foot rubbing, too.

Scientists have found that a system of nerve fibers, called C-tactile afferents, exists to recognize any form of gentle touch.

In fact, according to a 2017 study, the ideal touching speed is about 3 centimeters per second. 

These releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” 

Why is touch important?

Skin-to-skin contact is vital not only for mental and emotional health but physical health, too.

When you feel snowed under or pressured, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. One of the biggest things touch can do is reduce such stress, allowing the immune system to work the way it should.

Touch can also calm certain bodily functions, such as your heart rate and blood pressure. 

It does so by stimulating pressure receptors that transport signals to the vagus nerve. This nerve connects the brain to the rest of the body. It uses the signals to slow the pace of the nervous system.

In early life, touch is thought to be crucial for building healthy relationships by stimulating pathways for oxytocin, the natural antidepressant serotonin, and the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine.

Plus, it can tackle loneliness. According to a 2017 study, gentle touch can reduce both pain and feelings of social exclusion. 

How do you know if you’re touch starved? 

There’s no definitive way to know. But in a nutshell, you may feel overwhelmingly lonely or deprived of affection.

These symptoms may be combined with: 

You may also subconsciously do things to simulate touch, such as taking long, hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, and even holding on to a pet. 

What if you don’t particularly like being touched — can you still be touch starved?

Some people closely link touch with trust. If they don’t trust a person, they’re unlikely to want that person to touch them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t long for the benefits of a hug or handshake.

For example, not liking touch is sometimes reported by people on the neurodiverse spectrum and people who are asexual.

It may also be a result of childhood experiences. A 2012 study suggests that people whose parents were regular huggers were more likely to hug people in adulthood. 

Failing to experience frequent positive touch as a child may affect the development of the oxytocin system and the child’s intimacy and social skills — although this isn’t true for everyone. 

What can you do to help satiate this desire?

Touch starvation doesn’t have to last forever. 

Here are some simple ways to welcome more affection into your life right now. 

Keep in mind you may need to dial these activities back a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic, or avoid them until your local health officials give the OK:

  • Try out a massage. Whether you ask a loved one or visit a professional, massages can help you relax and enjoy the benefits of another person’s touch.
  • Spend some quality time with animals. Often all too happy to cuddle, pets are the ideal soothing mechanism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of animals transmitting the coronavirus to people is low, based on limited information currently available. 
  • Get your nails done. A manicure or pedicure may give you the human contact you need, and a new look to boot. When your local health department gives the OK, think about dressing up your hands and feet.
  • Visit the hair salon. If you don’t fancy a cut, book yourself a wash and blow-dry for ultimate relaxation.
  • Learn to dance. Most slow dances are built around skin-to-skin contact. That may not be a good choice during the pandemic. But as soon as you’re vaccinated and your health department gives a thumbs-up, think about learning some new moves.
  • Go to a cuddle party. Yes, these are real. And no, they’re not as strange as they sound. As soon as you and your friends are vaccinated and your health department gives the go-ahead for indoor gatherings, consider trying it out.

What can you do to encourage affectionate touch in your day to day?

With lockdowns, closed businesses, and medical advice to physically distance and avoid touching people not in your household, human touch has dwindled to a slow stream. For some, it has dried up altogether.

Medical facilities like the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and the Texas Medical Center warn that touch starvation is real. It’s important to find ways to keep in touch during the pandemic.

Sustaining regular touch during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging. If you live with other people or are part of a pod, there are likely people you can touch safely. You might try the tips below.

For yourself

  • Sit close to your loved ones. Instead of spreading out on the couch, make an effort to cuddle up during your Netflix sprees. 
  • Greet household members with a hug. If hugging people within your household or pod is safe, try this type of greeting. It may help both of you satisfy your touch hunger. 
  • Use touch when appropriate. In a romantic relationship, hold hands or cuddle. In platonic ones, reassure people with a touch to the arm or a pat on the back. Always make sure the touch is safe and other people are comfortable before going ahead.

For your loved ones

  • Give them plenty of positive touch. This can range from gentle strokes to full-on cuddling a few times a day. 
  • Avoid associating touch with negativity. Don’t pinch or push or do anything that takes away the feel-good vibes of physical contact.
  • Let children be close to you as often as possible. Allowing your child to sit on your lap or gently massaging your baby are important for bonding and the emotional growth of the child.

If you can’t touch safely

Maybe you’re one of the 35.7 million Americans who live alone. Or maybe you live with people who work in high-risk settings. Or perhaps touch in pandemic circumstances just isn’t worth the risk to you. 

In these and countless other scenarios, you may not have the opportunity for touch, or you may not feel safe with any human touch right now. There are still ways you can help satisfy your touch hunger — without physical contact.

Try the tips below. They might not be the real thing, but they do provide human contact and interaction:

  • Meet new people or connect with friends online. Technology provides many ways for online contact. Try video chat or virtual exercise classes or book clubs.
  • Wave to neighbors or passersby. Most of us take a daily walk. Try waving and maybe even meeting new people, from a physical distance, of course.
  • Host an online dinner. Invite family and friends to share a meal via a video app like Skype or FaceTime.
  • Connect via text and email. Be sure to use lots of emojis or gifs that emphasize physical touch, like thumbs-up or waving hands.
  • Talk with neighbors outside. Chat at a safe distance through a window or from a porch or backyard.
  • Try new outdoor group activities. Some group activities let you be with others without the risk involved in close quarters or touching. Try classes that involve physical distancing like yoga, painting, or tai chi.
Bottom Line:

If you’re feeling touch starved, you haven’t sealed your fate. There are plenty of ways to beat the condition and inspire positive, affectionate touch in those around you. 

References:
https://www.healthline.com/reviewers/jennifer-litner-lmft-cst
https://www.healthline.com/authors/karen-lamoreux
Edwards DJ, et al. (2018). The immediate effect of therapeutic touch and deep touch pressure on range of motion, interoceptive accuracy and heart rate variability: A randomized controlled trial with moderation analysis.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6160827/
Emotional well-being and coping during COVID-19. (n.d.).
psychiatry.ucsf.edu/copingresources/covid19
Floyd K. (2014). Relational and health correlates of affection deprivation.
tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10570314.2014.927071
If you have pets. (2021).
cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/pets.html
Pawling R, et al. (2017). C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value.
journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173457
Pierce S. (2020). Touch starvation is a consequence of COVID-19’s physical distancing.
tmc.edu/news/2020/05/touch-starvation/
Sigley I, et al. (2020). It has touched us all: Commentary on the social implications of touch during the COVID-19 pandemic.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7380212/
Suvilehto JT, et al. (2015). Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans.
pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2015/10/21/1519231112.full.pdf
Uvnäs-Moberg K, et al. (2015). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation.
frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01529/full
von Mohr M, et al. (2017). The soothing function of touch: Affective touch reduces feelings of social exclusion.
nature.com/articles/s41598-017-13355-7
U.S. Census Bureau releases 2018 families and living arrangements tables. (2018).
census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/families.html

Photo Credit: De'Andre Bush 

1 comment

  • This well written article is informative and provides helpful guidance for those facing “touch starvation” issues. It emphasizes the importance of physical contact in our lives . I commend the author for sharing this timely subject.

    Mack Maroney Strong

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