If you want to appreciate how important physical contact is for us human beings, consider how we reference it in our idioms. When we want someone to keep in communication with us, we tell them to “stay in touch.” Someone who we know personally is considered a “contact.” Emotionally deep experiences are “touching.” Conversely, someone who’s clueless might be called “out of touch,” and a bad communicator can be “tactless.” Clearly, our ideas of closeness, familiarity, and communication are tied to our sense of touch in a metaphorical but meaningful way.
These days, a less familiar touch-related idiom has been getting renewed attention. The phrase “skin hunger,” sometimes known as “touch starvation,” or by the more clinical-sounding term “touch deprivation,” refers to the feeling that we’re not getting as much social, physical contact as we want. It’s our craving for the touch of other human beings, when there’s not enough human touch in our lives.
Skin hunger may sound like a poetic yearning felt by absent lovers, but the human need for touch isn’t limited to romance. In ordinary times, a hug from a friend, a pat on the back from a colleague, holding hands with a child, or some fist-bumps and high fives during a pick-up basketball game all help us reach our quota for contact. “Casual, everyday touch is important in reaffirming social relationships, expressing emotion and creating trust, among other things,” says Sean Hagberg, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, and VP Research for Feelmore Labs.
We even have specialized nerve endings in our skin that react specifically to the slow, comforting stroke we instinctively use to express affection to people close to us. Emotionally meaningful touch—aka affective touch—is part of our legacy as a social species. “Affective touch is a primary pathway to building social connectedness among mammals, and especially higher mammals,” Hagberg notes. “And the sorts of ‘casual’ touch we engage in often have affective touch associated with them, so serve that same purpose.”
Under conditions of pandemic and quarantine, both soothing affective touching and everyday moments of human contact become harder to achieve. So if lockdown has left you feeling bereft of human touch, you’re not the only one.
Describing this deficit in terms of “hunger” or “starvation” is no exaggeration; science tells us that the touch of our fellow humans is crucial for our well-being. This dependence starts even before we’re born: touch is the first of our senses to develop. Infants and children who have minimal physical contact with caregivers develop less than average cognitive skills, studies show. In one extreme case, children in a Romanian orphanage who were touch-deprived carried the effects into adolescence. Conversely, extra touching, including infant massage, improves the outlook for babies who are underweight or otherwise at risk. Among other effects, physical contact between mother and child reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in both parties.
Touch remains important throughout our lives. For one thing, it’s a powerful way of communicating—”Ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact,” wrote anthropologist Ashley Montageu, in his book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (1971). No zoom meeting or facetime can equal the impact of a supportive arm around the shoulders or a playful punch on the arm. And multiple studies show that socially appropriate touching makes people more likely to make a purchase, tip a server, volunteer in a classroom, or give a salesperson a positive rating. The physical effects of social touching are impressive as well. They range from reduced heart rate and blood pressure to a lowering of stress hormones and an increase in oxytocin, the hormone associated with affection and attachment.
“Studies of folks who undergo some stressful event, with and without touch, show that even holding hands with a stranger reduces stress. . .and more so if it’s with your S.O.” says Hagberg. “Affective touch is one of the primary, hard-wired adaptations to stress in mammals and particularly in social mammals.” Studies find that marriages and romantic relationships seem healthier with regular physical contact between partners, and that worldwide, cultures which put a premium on social touch tend to be less violent.
The touch of other humans is a kind of “all clear” signal to our nervous system, a signal that we’re safe and things are okay. The nerve endings in our skin that react to affective touch are connected to a part of the brain that integrates our sensory and emotional experiences, and triggers all sorts of physiological responses. A deficit of social touching not only deprives us of natural stress relief, it has detrimental effects, including depression, sleep problems and immune system decline. In one survey of over 500 people, those who reported feeling touch-deprived—that is, they weren’t getting as much affectionate touch as they desired—reported lower levels of happiness and well-being, more mental and physical health problems, more loneliness and depression, and less satisfaction in their relationships.
It may be years before researchers are able to analyze the effects of this worldwide touch-deprivation experiment we’re all unintentionally participating in. So what can we do until the quarantine lifts? Ultimately, there’s no real substitute for the human touch, so be sure to spend time with whoever you’re able to safely get close to. That includes pets; studies show that dog owners interacting with their canine friends get an oxytocin boost.
Don’t let yourself lose touch—the figurative kind—with the people you’re socially distancing from. Seeing or talking to someone important to you can have a positive effect, if it’s not as strong as it would be if you could hug or shake hands. And in the absence of affective touch and its benefits, be sure to deploy whatever stress—reducing tactics you can, whether it’s exercise, managing your sleep, meditating, or whatever works for you.
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