Have you ever thought about the number of times you touch other people? Whether hugging your child, cuddling with your partner or playing a contact sport, you probably take those casual physical interactions for granted. But for people with a prolonged lack of physical contact, skin hunger is a serious condition that contributes to depression and can even shorten lifespans.
Anyone who doesn’t have the opportunity to physically interact with other people can experience skin hunger, also known as touch deprivation. Prisoners in solitary confinement, for example, may experience serious effects from touch deprivation. Therapists who work with elderly populations have also observed the detrimental effects of skin hunger. And even those who travel alone can experience noticeable negative effects, and quickly.
“After two or three days, I’m incredibly uncomfortable and I can’t wait to get home,” says Frank Bigelow, a software sales manager who travels often for work. “Even though I’m with people all day long and I’m bombarded with information and interaction, the connections aren’t personal. It gets lonely fast. And the first thing I want when I get home is a hug.”
What is skin hunger?
“Skin hunger generally comes about because the person was not held much in the first six months of their life,” said Margaret Paul, Ph.D., author of “Diet for Divine Connection” and co-creator of Inner Bonding, a therapy designed to treat the root causes of anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, addictions and other emotional and psychological problems.
“Babies need much holding for at least six months,” she added. “Healing occurs when the person, over time, receives non-sexual nurturing and holding from a loving mother or grandmother type of person who can hold them with love without an agenda attached.”
Well-known research backs up this claim. Starting in the 1950s, an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, separated infant rhesus monkeys from their birth mothers and offered the orphaned macaques a choice: They could attempt to bond with a surrogate made from wire and wood that also held a bottle, or they could choose a cloth-covered model without any food. Overwhelmingly, even when the infants fed from the wire mother, they chose the cloth surrogate, leading Harlow to the conclusion that the monkeys needed “contact comfort” to thrive.
The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami conducted recent research that observed the importance of touch and how even casual, but personal, touch among friends in adolescence can relieve stress and lower cortisol levels, and possibly prevent the development of violent behavior in adults. These studies may provide stronger evidence that “touch deprivation in early development and again in adolescents may contribute to violence in adults…[and] cultures in which there was more physical affection toward young children had lower rates of adult physical violence and vice versa.”
Is skin hunger sexual?
Paul emphasizes that skin hunger is not sexual and that touch deprivation cannot be solved through sexual interactions.
“The person doesn’t want anything from them and is happy to just hold them with love,” she said. “In my experience with my clients, this can’t occur in a primary relationship because there is often a sexual agenda, and this isn’t at all what the person needs. The person needs the mothering they didn’t receive as a baby.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t easy to find in our society,” Paul said. “Sometimes, the person has a good, loving friend who can hold them and give them the holding they need to heal.”
Signs of skin hunger
The signs of skin hunger often resemble depression or anxiety. Multiple studies reveal that the signs of touch deprivation include:
- Lower reported levels of satisfaction and/or happiness.
- Difficulty experiencing satisfaction in relationships, and a lower ability to form healthy attachments to other people.
- Higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders.
- Difficulty expressing their own and understanding others’ emotions.
- Higher reported levels of loneliness.
- Higher stress.
- Depressive and/or anxious symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping.
- Simulating the warmth of human touch by holding a pet, wrapping up in blankets or taking frequent hot baths.
How to alleviate skin hunger
Although the symptoms of skin hunger are serious, there are several ways to relieve the effects of touch deprivation that don’t require intimacy, whether sexual or not. Healthline suggests several ways that touch-starved people can introduce skin-to-skin contact into their lives. These include:
Massage or cuddle therapy. “Sometimes, healing can occur with a very nurturing massage therapist,” Paul said. And as strange as “cuddle therapy” may sound, there are professional cuddlers who can help relieve touch deprivation symptoms.
Regular spa or hair appointments. Haircuts, and manicures and pedicures, are easy ways to introduce skin contact without the pressure of forming a close or intimate relationship. Running an online people search on your technician may help make you more comfortable letting them get close to you if you’re feeling nervous beforehand.
Pet adoption. The unconditional love and affection that dogs and cats deliver daily is a proven mood booster and can help relieve the symptoms of skin hunger. If you’re not interested in adopting a pet, consider volunteering at a shelter or visiting a “cat cafe” where you can hold and touch the animals.
Getting close with family members or friends. Sitting nearby others instead of far away, extending hugs for a few moments longer and even increasing the number of handshakes and back slaps you give can have a cumulative effect on your well-being.
Critically, avoid touch interactions that could be interpreted as negative. For example, pinching and pushing—even when meant in jest—could do more harm than good.
Touching me, touching you
Repeated exposure to non-threatening, non-sexual skin contact can provide relief to those who experience the effects of mild skin hunger. Those who suffer from extreme touch deprivation should consider therapy to relieve depressive or anxious symptoms.
For Bigelow, the answer was shortening work trips to gain more time at home with family, friends and pets.
“Even just being in my house with my pets when no one else is home is enough to relieve some of my travel-related stress,” he said. “And the extra nights I’ve gained in my own bed, waking up next to my wife more often, is even better.”