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Mind

Skin hunger: how lack of touch in lockdown is affecting us

May 22nd 2020 / Melanie Macleod / 0 comment

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If you’re suffering from low mood and inability to sleep, it could be down to this condition identified by psychologists

Every time I open Instagram I’m greeted with throwback snaps of friends accompanied by captions saying “can’t wait to squeeze you” or “looking forward to the biggest hug when this is over”. Such is our longing for touch, formally known as skin hunger.

Skin hunger is a recognised psychological concept; put simply it’s the biological need for human touch. “When our nerve endings are deprived of any interaction it tips off a cascade of neural pathways akin to unrequited love,” explains neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. “We literally become desperate for human touch as we would for food if we were starving.

"Touch is so important to our mental and physical wellbeing it’s the reason we encourage skin-to-skin contact for newborn babies with their parents," she adds.

It’s also the reason why prisoners in solitary confinement often report craving human contact as strongly as they desire freedom, explains writer and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly. “Being touched makes humans feel happier and calmer,” she says.

The need for human touch is so strong that in the Netherlands the government has recommended that people in lockdown pair up with a sex buddy; one person that they continually meet to fulfil their need for human touch. The guidance came after critics said there was no sex advice for singles. "It makes sense that as a single [person] you also want to have physical contact" during the pandemic said The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. They didn't say why they advocated a sex buddy as opposed to simply a touch buddy, but the fact that sex is known to be good for our wellbeing (it releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone) is a good indicator.

How does touch affect us?

“Touch stimulates sensors under the skin that send messages to the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the gut, " says Rachel. "As vagal activity increases the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and you feel more relaxed. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased. Touch also releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone released during sex and childbirth.

“Touch helps support our immune systems because it reduces our cortisol levels,” Rachel continues. “When cortisol levels are high our immune system is depleted.” Ironic in the age of coronavirus when we need a robust immune system the most. Cortisol kills our natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that attacks viruses.

How to tell if you're skin hungry

“Skin hunger presents itself through depression-like symptoms such as sleep disturbance, low energy, change in appetite, constipation, lack of libido and even anxiety,” explains Dr Swart.

Skin hunger can show itself physically too; “As levels of stress hormone cortisol rise this can lead to dryness throughout our body, most noticeably on our skin where it is driest such as shins, hands and elbows.”

In short, when we're deprived of touch we go downhill. Some people isolating alone will now not have been touched for months and as the no-touch status quo continues, this could have profound effects on our mental health.

Some people could be hit harder by the lack of touch - those whose love language is touch for example. According to author Gary Chapman, there are said to be five love languages; words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch. They determine how we communicate in a relationship and can explain why you feel like you're not on the same page as your partner. If your love language is physical touch it means you prefer physical expressions of love over all other expressions and could be left feeling very neglected and down at the present time - this is particularly relevant at the moment given that we underestimate quite how much we touch people all the time in “normal” life, even in non-intimate ways. From shaking hands to having a haircut or manicure, our lives feature more human touch than we might think.

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5 ways to ease skin hunger

If you’re isolating alone or away from friends and loved ones there are ways to alleviate skin hunger that you don’t need other people for.

1. Have a long bath

Immersing yourself in water feels similar to an embrace and can work to lessen the feelings of skin hunger. “A bath induces the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin that we get when we receive physical contact, affection and love,” explains Dr Swart. In particular, a magnesium bath can help as it also reduces cortisol levels.

2. Take time with body treatments

On top of bathing, other beauty rituals can work wonders to ease skin hunger. “Dry body brushing, bamboo tapping (tapping your body with tightly bound, fine bamboo for a calming, cooling sensation that helps blood flow) and moisturising all help,” says Tara. “When our skin is dried out by cortisol we have to treat it more with moisturiser.

"There’s an exercise I call 'body gratitude' which you can do in the shower or while moisturising that involves touching each part of the body from head to toe and thanking it for its action, i.e. the skin for protecting our physical boundary, belly for digestion lips for tasting and feet for walking.”

Dr Swart explains the importance of beauty rituals in this IGTV she filmed for GTG:

Love your pets

“Stroking a pet can benefit you in the same way that a masseuse benefits from giving a massage," says Rachel. "When you pet a dog, you move and touch your own skin and pressure points in the skin are stimulated. If you don’t have a pet yourself, ask a dog owner in the park if you can pet their animal. Or connect with another animal, be that patting a horse in a field or stroking a cat.”

Try solo sex

If you’re not isolating with your partner (and you haven’t followed the Netherlands’ lead and shacked up with isolation buddy) chances are your sex drive has not been sated and there’s a very good argument for masturbation as a counter to skin hunger. Sales data for sex toy brand Womanizer show that since coronavirus reared its head, sales numbers are well above projections, with global data more than a 50 per cent surge on original forecasts.

MORE GLOSS: Why lockdown sex is complicated

Orgasms release oxytocin and this helps to lower the stress hormone cortisol. "But it's not only orgasm that can conquer the negative impacts of lack of social touch,” says Megyn White, clinical sexologist and director of education at sexual wellness brand Satisfyer.

"When we explore self-pleasure we can also help to activate neural receptors within the skin called c-tactile afferent nerves, which especially respond to slow and gentle touch. We can help support this neutral connective feature of mind/body awareness through slow conscious touch of the body, and this can result in a slowing down of the stress response and a more positive relationship to our surrounding environment. In a very real sense, when you touch your own body you are in direct communication with your mind.”

MORE GLOSS: The sex toys we feel no shame about having on our bedside table

Barefoot walking

Abandoning your shoes for a walk on the grass can help with feelings of skin hunger. “Barefoot walking exposes the many nerve endings on the bottom of our feet to different textures which is mentally stimulating,” says Dr Swart. “Coupled with the fact this is usually out in nature (grass, soil or sand) there are mental and physical benefits, although certain surfaces like brick, stone or concrete also give the same grounding effect.”

MORE GLOSS: Why are lockdown Mondays so much harder?

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