As of today, people in the UK are officially allowed to hug one another again. Boris Johnson advised that we hug with caution from today onwards, keeping in mind the vulnerability of our loved ones and using common sense when it comes to cuddling. But how has over a year of not hugging (or touching one another in general) affected us?
The desire for hugs and contact is formally known as skin hunger and 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 during the lockdown in the Netherlands, the government has recommended that people 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.