“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…