- Touch stimulates nerves under your skin that trigger a rush of feel-good chemicals.
- You may feel agitated and experience “skin hunger” if you don’t get enough touch.
- You can remedy this by giving yourself a massage, taking a bath, or cuddling a pet.
Touch starvation, also called affection deprivation or skin hunger, occurs when you don’t get enough physical contact with other people.
But it’s not always possible to have contact with other people when you need, or want, it.
For example, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing practices lead to widespread touch starvation, which has been linked to heightened stress, anxiety, and depression during that time.
If you’re feeling touch deprived, there are several methods you can try to simulate the positive effects of touch.
What does it mean to be touch starved?
“Humans are born with the need to be close to other human beings,” says Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counselor and the chair of the counseling department at Northern Illinois University.
The top layer of your skin, called the epidermis, is full of nerves, along with pressure receptors under the skin. When someone touches you, by stroking your skin or pressing on it with a hug, it stimulates these nerves. In response, your body releases feel-good brain chemicals like oxytocin.
“When you don’t receive enough touch, as in moving the skin, your nervous system goes into an agitated mode,” says Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.
Your body responds to heightened stress or agitation with a strong longing to be held, stroked, or cuddled. This is what’s happening in your body when you feel touch starvation.
“Everyone has different needs to be close to another,” Degges-White says. This means there is no hard number for how long it takes to develop touch starvation.
If you share your bed with someone every night, you might miss their presence the first night you’re sleeping alone, Degges-White says.
“For others, they may not begin to miss the touch of another for a week or two, even if they’d been living with that person for years,” Degges-White says.
The benefits of touch
“When we experience skin-to-skin contact, or a warm embrace, or massage, our brains kick up the production of some key neurochemicals that positively influence our biology,” Degges-White says.
This can lead to some important health benefits throughout your body and mind.
1. Strengthens emotional bonds
When someone touches you, it triggers the production of oxytocin, which is known as the “bonding hormone” or “cuddle hormone.”
“This hormone encourages us to feel close to others and connected to another – whether it’s in the realm of parent-child bonds, friendship bonds, or romantic relationships,” Degges-White says.
2. Relieves stress
3. Boosts mental health
4. Improve heart health
But to get this effect, it’s important to squeeze lightly or use pressure, as light touch can actually increase your heart rate.
5. Improve immune function
When you experience touch, the brain chemicals released can “enhance immune function — natural killer cells that kill bacterial, viral, and cancer cells,” Field says.
In a 2014 study, researchers surveyed participants over two weeks to find out how often they received hugs at home. The researchers then exposed the participants to a cold virus and monitored their symptoms.
The results showed that participants who received more hugs developed less severe cold symptoms like congestion.
How to overcome touch starvation
In many cases, you may not be able to immediately solve touch starvation — for example, you might be living or traveling far away from loved ones or isolating due to illness.
But even if you can’t touch another person, “there are a variety of ways to try and feed skin hunger that can be safely practiced,” Degges-White says.
1. Give yourself a massage
“It’s not as good as the real thing, but it will activate your neurons and provide some relief from the ache for contact,” Degges-White says.
“The nerves in the arms, neck, shoulders, and back are especially receptive to the effects of gentle stroking,” Degges-White says.
You can also try using a soft brush to slowly massage your skin — this may have similar effects to having a person caress you.
2. Warm your body
“Hot showers or warm baths are also useful ways to calm the hunger for touch,” Degges-White says.
“Holding a mug of hot coffee or tea also stimulates the nervous system in positive ways and acts to calm our heart rate and blood pressure,” Degges-White says.
3. Cuddle your pet
This is because touching your pet triggers the release of feel-good brain chemicals like oxytocin — the same chemical that’s triggered when you hug a person you love.
4. Use a weighted blanket
Weighted blankets create pressure on your skin and simulate a firm touch. “Their weight can calm the nervous system and be very comforting,” Degges-White says.
For example, walking stimulates the pressure receptors on the bottom of your feet, and yoga stimulates different skin receptors depending on the pose.
This skin stimulation slows your nervous system and reduces the production of stress hormones, Field says.
“It’s normal to hunger for the touch of another person,” Degges-White says.
And touching others comes with many benefits, including boosting your immune system and easing stress.
But even if you aren’t able to touch another person, there are several methods you can use to simulate touch or trigger some of the same feel-good chemicals.
Exercising, cuddling a pet, or using a weighted blanket can all help you cope until you’re able to get physical affection again.