‘Skin Hunger’ Is Legit And It’s The Reason We Crave Physical Affection, Says Science
We were ushered into an era of social distancing by a deadly virus that we didn’t see coming. With a box of our belongings – a half-eaten box of cookies, little desk plants, and our laptops – we went home from work one fine day and couldn’t return. It has been around three months and we’re here, away from the office banter, the spontaneous dive bar plans, and drunk hugging people, calling them our BFFs. We are not meeting a friend at a coffee shop and greeting them with a warm embrace. Neither are we going on dates with a cutie and being canoodled. All of this, whether we realise or not, is taking a toll on our emotional and mental health.
My colleague-friend who believes in the healing power of hugs as much as I do and who was my PDA partner at work often tells me that she misses that warmth. And so do I! Whenever I got stressed at work, I used to just walk to her desk and she hugged me, no questions asked. Here I am, without any physical affection and craving it the most. We can talk to people on video calls but does it have the same effect as physically being around them? Giving a high-five or leaning against your friend when someone cracks a hilarious joke, walking while holding hands and so much more – there’s nothing that can replace human touch.
What is skin hunger or touch starvation?
I didn’t know until recently that there’s actually a legit term for craving physical touch and it’s called ‘skin hunger’ or ‘touch starvation’. “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 told Insider.
Touch is a basic necessity for humans
Touch can be healing, which is precisely why people hug to comfort someone who is crying or having sex makes us feel so good. It makes us feel pleasure and helps us feel safe and secure, which in turn reduces our anxiety. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami told Wired that human touch makes “the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your brain waves show relaxation. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased.”
How does touch starvation affect us?
If touch can heal, the lack of it can have a negative effect on our wellbeing. Researchers believe that touch starvation can cause stress, disturbed sleep, and even reduced immunity. This can be a reason why health ministries around the world are advising citizens have one sexual partner. “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 explained. “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 further added.
In fact, Field’s team conducted research on how lack of touch affected people in lockdown and a whopping 97% reported sleep disturbances.
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How do we manage?
If you have a partner to cuddle during this period of social distancing, it’s amazing. Field said that when our skin is massaged or brushed, it increases the level of serotonin in our bodies, which basically helps us sleep better. “Get as much exercise as you can. Simply walking around your room stimulates the pressure receptors in your feet. Give yourself a scalp massage, or rub moisturiser into your face. These are all different ways people can move their skin,” advised Field. Having pets is helpful too. If you’re living with family, no matter how they are not into PDA, just give them a nice warm hug.
Either way, I can’t wait for this to pass and be able to smother my loved ones with physical affection. And when this gets over, I hope the touch starvation we felt during this period reminds people to hug more. Unfortunately, we don’t do that enough in our country. Meanwhile, I am going to be sleeping with a pillow!