People are experiencing 'skin hunger' after months without touching anyone
- After months of not touching another human due to restrictions imposed during the novel coronavirus pandemic, some people are experiencing intense "skin hunger."
- The term describes the physical and mental-health consequences caused by a lack of human touch, including higher stress levels, a weakened immune system, and poor sleep.
- While nothing can completely replace the primal need for touch, some strategies can tide you over, including petting animals and even hugging a pillow.
- For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Brie Juran hasn't touched another human being in more than 12 weeks.
She lives alone in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has taken physical distancing seriously because she has an underlying health condition and can do her work, for a career services nonprofit, from home.
She hasn't seen, let alone kissed, her boyfriend, who's more than three hours away in Toledo. They've considered meeting up in a park, but the thought of having him close without touching is more painful than not seeing him. Nor has she hugged her parents, who live nearby.
But it wasn't until her mom - aching to give Juran a hug - offered to do so with a sheet in between them that Juran, who declined the offer, realised the toll the touch-less months had taken on her health.
"Since she said that, it's been on my mind a lot in terms of really missing connecting with my loved ones in that way," Juran told Insider. "There's just something about a good hug that I feel provides comfort in a way that nothing else can."
She's right: While technology and six-feet-apart gatherings can help help make physically isolated people feel less lonely or even more socially connected than before, neuroscientists and psychologists know they can't replace the primal need for human touch.
"We benefit by hearing 'I love you' or a smile or interacting with people in non-tactile ways ... but when we have the ability to be in physical contact, to touch, hold hands, hug, kiss - that's another whole category of mental and physical health benefits such that everything else we do is an imperfect substitute," Kory Floyd, a communications professor at the University of Arizona who studies how affection impacts stress and physiological functioning, told Insider.
But while the distress of what some call "skin hunger" is very real, there are some tactics experts say can help manage the craving for hands-on human connection until it's safe to touch again.
The need to touch others makes us human
If we're not touched as babies, we die.
"When we're born, we're 100% dependent on a caregiver to clothe us, feed us, bathe us, to hold us and comfort us, and all of those activities require touch," Floyd said.
If we're not touched enough as babies, our bodies grow too slowly, our brains don't fully develop, and our immune systems aren't robust.
We never grow out of our need to be touched by others, either. Research finds it signals safety, soothes, relieves cardiovascular stress, makes us more compassionate, and activates "the love hormone" oxytocin, Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, wrote in the center's magazine.
Research has shown it can also be an effective complementary therapy for everything from Alzheimer's disease to cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder.
All that to say: If touching others has such remarkable power to keep us mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy, the absence of it can be equally negatively impactful. Cue skin hunger.
"When we feel alone, when we lack the ability to interact with people in familiar and comforting ways, we feel vulnerable, and we feel under threat and under attack," Floyd said. As a result, we become "hyper-vigilant," which elevates our general stress, disrupts our sleep, and suppresses our immune system, he said - all particularly damaging effects these days.
"Especially for people who felt lonely anyway, then to go through self-isolation and the threat of the virus itself, and then to go through all the stress and associated with racial tensions, not to mention stress and threat that people are feeling financially," Floyd said, the added consequences of not touching only makes things worse.
You can manage skin hunger with several techniques
Everyone's touch needs aren't the same, and past experiences, especially traumatic ones, can affect how much and what kinds of human touch feel good and bad to you.
But like like sleep, "no one needs zero," Floyd said.
If zero is what you're getting these days, though, there are ways to tide you over until you feel safe enough to go in for an embrace.
Floyd recommends petting dogs or cats, whether your own or a neighbour's. Not only can the experience lower blood pressure and stress hormones, it has similar benefits to the animal, he said.
Even hugging a pillow can bring on the warm fuzzies both from the pressure against your skin, which mimics touch from another person or pet, and the action you're taking, which your brain still interprets as an embrace. "There are some benefits of just going through the motion," Floyd said.
- Self-touch or massage can be helpful, too. Some research shows touching your shoulder or rubbing your hands and feet can have many of the same pain-alleviating benefits as if someone else did it, Floyd said.
Eric Kussin, founder of the #SameHere mental health movement "We're All a Little 'Crazy,'" who lives alone in New York City and hasn't touched anyone since early-mid March, recommends one particular self-touch method called self-Havening.
It involves crossing your arms and rubbing your hands up and down your upper arms while saying words related to experiences you've had that bother you. (People who have particularly traumatic memories, though, are encouraged to use the therapist-guided form of the technique, which Justin Bieber has praised in his YouTube documentary "Seasons" as a way to manage stress.)
Kussin is also aware of how a lack of touch affects others from a communication standpoint. He can't put his hand on a friend's shoulder or illustrate compassion through body language as clearly, so he takes extra care to show and tell people how he feels about them through words and visible-on-Zoom mannerisms.
If more people do that, perhaps we can emerge from the pandemic a less guarded and more emotionally open society, he hopes. "The need is there," Kussin told Insider. "You can take an adverse experience and turn it into a positive."
Receive a daily update on your cellphone with all our latest news: click here.
Get the best of our site emailed to you daily: click here.
Also from Business Insider South Africa:
- How to boost your firm's chance of getting money from SA's R200 billion Covid-19 loan scheme
- TAKE A LOOK: How Virgin Active gyms will change - no sweat towels and you have to book your spot
- Covid-19: Dis-Chem may now test you for free - if you’re unemployed or without medical aid
- Taxi fares on most Joburg routes will more than double next week - unless govt steps in
- Recreational fishing is now allowed - here are some of SA’s best spots