We’re Not Meant to Live Without Touch

Social isolation is prompting many to experience ‘skin hunger’

Illustration courtesy of author

“I haven’t touched another human being in seven weeks,” my friend Sarah confessed to me. “I never thought I’d miss something as simple as a handshake from a stranger. Even brushing past people to get off the bus sounds like a luxury at this point.”

This is the first time in recent history that such a large population is experiencing touch deprivation. For those isolating alone, a complete lack of human touch adds an unprecedented mental strain to the stress of a global pandemic. As social isolation measures stretch into the future, it’s disconcerting to imagine what a future without touch might look like.

Sarah explained, “At least once a day, the feeling of wanting a simple hug overwhelms me. But I live alone, and I don’t think there is any safe way for me to get one.”

This feeling of longing is called “skin hunger,” or “touch hunger.”

Skin hunger refers to our desire for physical human contact. It is not necessarily a sexual need — but rather a need for meaningful, connective contact with another person. Skin hunger, of course, mounts as we experience a prolonged lack of human touch.

How important is touch to our well-being? Human touch is a biological need. Studies have shown that touch has physical and emotional health benefits. A study by neurologist Edmund Rolls found that touch activates the part of the brain linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Giving and receiving touch triggers the brain’s release of oxytocin, sometimes nicknamed the “happiness hormone.” Touch can also reduce our cardiovascular stress response, causing our heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol to drop.

Lack of touch can have huge mental health implications: Humans are social beings, and touch is part of our language. Touch connects us to others and strengthens interpersonal bonds, especially to the ones we love. Especially in high-stress situations, touch becomes even more important as a source of comfort.

Lack of touch doesn’t just affect us mentally—it affects us physically. Higher levels of cortisol are linked to weakened immune system function. This is just one example of the spillover from mental to physical health as a consequence of being touch-starved.

Giving and receiving touch triggers the brain’s release of oxytocin, sometimes nicknamed the “happiness hormone.”

Without even realizing it, many of us fulfill our need for touch in our day-to-day interactions: a hug from a friend, a pat on the shoulder from a co-worker, or even a simple hand brush when taking your change from a cashier. Studies have shown that even a gentle touch from a stranger can reduce feelings of social exclusion.

How do you know if you’re experiencing skin hunger?

The first symptom is obvious: You feel a longing for human touch. We’ve all had some version of this feeling before. A common one is yearning for a hug when we’re upset. When you’re experiencing skin hunger, that feeling may become overwhelming. It may also be accompanied by strong feelings of loneliness.

With skin hunger being so closely tied to loneliness and poor mental well-being, it may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as feelings of depression, anxiety, or stress or difficulty sleeping.

There are urgent calls to study the mental health impact of the coronavirus, and preliminary studies warn that this pandemic will have serious and long-reaching consequences.

Observing our mental health during this pandemic means looking beyond general feelings of depression or loneliness and examining the underlying causes. The pandemic is causing a notable jump in mental health challenges worldwide. And for some, this may be directly related to the physical loss of human connection.

Once it’s safe to do so, there are therapeutic ways that touch can improve our mental health. An awareness of the importance of touch may affect how we approach mental health treatments going forward — talking is great, but what unique benefits can massage therapy or cuddle therapy offer? Experiencing skin hunger draws attention to the therapeutic power of touch in a way that we might not have considered in our previous “normal” lives.

If we can’t experience human touch in this moment, then we need to compensate in other ways. Interestingly, scientists have found that certain nerve endings recognize any form of gentle touch — and don’t differentiate between who is touching you. That means there may be real benefits to self-touch. We can see this in our tendency to self-massage when we’re stressed. Humans have some innate self-soothing responses, like wringing our hands or rubbing our forehead when we’re upset.

The moral of the story: Any kind of cuddle (including a self-cuddle) is better than none. Taking the time for intentional touch might give us the boost we need to ride out the storm. If you’re lucky enough to have a pet at home, you already know the benefits of a good cuddle with a furry companion.

If you’re alone, you can stimulate your touch receptors with gentle, warm pressure. A hot water bottle or heating pad can offer comfort. Even the simple act of giving yourself a shoulder massage or applying hand lotion can stimulate those nerve endings. Another trick might be to use a weighted blanket. Although their efficacy remains unproven, many weighted-blanket users report a drop in anxiety levels, likely due to deep pressure stimulation, one of the same types of stimulation we get through touch. Of course, the other fail-safe option might be to start a regular practice of hugging yourself — I promise, it feels awesome.

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