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 “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 realised. Thanks to modern living and current cultural norms, most of us are at risk of this at the best of times – let alone today!
But why is human touch so important and what can we do to improve our mental wellbeing under the current restrictions?
Are we going through a human touch crisis?
Much of Western society was already moving away from human touch in many ways – with us turning to technology and sexualising touch in all its forms to such a point that we often feel too uncomfortable to even enter into each others’ spaces – let alone 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, with us distancing ourselves increasingly – even from friends and family – opting for less hands-on forms of expressing affection – we may not have even realised we were missing something…
Fast-forward to today, with the ongoing pandemic demonising human touch even further – giving us all an actual concrete reason to stand back from one another, many of us are dipping into a mental health crisis and we are not even sure 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 – I am still telling you that this mindset is not doing our mental health any favours!
The importance of human touch
Touch is commonly thought of as one single sense, but it is actually much more complex than that! Some nerve endings recognise an itch, others respond to vibration, and others to pain, pressure and different textures. And then there’s one that exists exclusively to recognise 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 feelings of touch starvation. Scientists have found that a nerve ending, called C-tactile afferents, recognises, and thus responds 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 Dr. Jon Reeves, a clinical psychologist based in the US.
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 if 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, affect your 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.
Touch 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.
“A Hug a Day?”
Hugging induces oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” that’s renowned for reducing stress, lowering cortisol levels, and establishing a sense of trust and security. According to research, women who receive more hugs from their partners have lower heart rates and blood pressure, and higher levels of this bonding hormone, oxytocin.
So did we get it all wrong with this apple-a-day thing? Should we have been focusing on how many hugs we get each day instead?
According to a post on mindbodygreen.com:
“Hugs strengthen the immune system. The gentle pressure on the sternum and the emotional charge this creates activates the Solar Plexus Chakra. This stimulates the thymus gland, which regulates and balances the body’s production of white blood cells, which keeps you healthy and disease-free.”
(But of course, if you can choose both hugs and apples, then definitely go for that option…)
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.
However – this isn’t necessarily the case! An introvert may enjoy their alone time and even not want to be with others for a great portion of their time – but we all have the same fundamental human needs and biological responses to human touch – or lack thereof. So we should all be making sure we are meeting 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 interaction
Of course, nothing can fully replace real human touch – but those of us self-isolating – particularly alone (or with flatmates 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 will soon be near your loved ones again.
Some other self-soothing exercises 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, or 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, pay close attention to the sounds of the birds, the smell of the grass or the (probably) incoming rain, 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 now, then we must get it from the abundance of our surroundings.
How are you coping with self-isolation, darling? Did any of these tips help you? Let us know down in the comments!