The Silent Epidemic: Addressing Touch Starvation in the Age of Isolation

Image: Priscilla du Preez / Unsplash

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Have you ever wondered why doctors put the baby on the mother’s bare skin when a baby is born? Or why when you are having a crappy day, not just any hug is good enough to give you the comfort you need? Have you ever wondered why when the one you love hugs you, holds your hand or pats you on the back, you feel calmer, happier, loved, validated, or seen? We often talk of the five senses; the one that comes through the most significant human organ is also the least considered.

Touch, or physical contact, is a basic human need that begins when we are born. It is a fundamental way humans connect, communicate, and express emotions such as love, empathy, and comfort. However, the rise of social changes and, most recently, global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increased touch deprivation or “touch starvation” – a phenomenon that can have significant implications for mental health.

Understanding Touch Starvation

Touch starvation or skin hunger refers to the longing for physical contact when it is absent. This condition has grown more prevalent due to social, cultural, and personal factors. Changes in living arrangements like single-person households, social distancing measures, and individual factors like health conditions or fear of inappropriate touch can all contribute to this predicament.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and isolation measures implemented worldwide have dramatically reduced opportunities for physical contact, particularly for those living alone or away from family. This lack of touch has heightened feelings of touch starvation, compounding the stress and anxiety associated with the pandemic.

Its Impact on Well-being

Research indicates that physical touch plays a crucial role in human well-being. Physical contact triggers the release of oxytocin, often called the “bonding hormone” or “love hormone,” which helps foster feelings of trust, bonding, and connection. Touch also stimulates the vagus nerve, slowing the heart rate and reducing stress hormone production.

Human behaviors that oxytocin is responsible for include romantic attachment and sexual arousal – ergo the love hormone nickname; recognition and trust – a lack of which can cause loneliness and feelings of being touch starved; as well as parent-infant bonding – in which positive contact helps raise healthier children.

Since hormones are message carriers, the absence of this hormone has physical, mental, and emotional effects on a human being. Touch also activates the orbitofrontal cortex. This brain area is associated with emotional and social behaviors, decision-making, and learning. It can also be calming and reassuring for people experiencing distress,” he adds.

Conversely, a lack of touch can negatively impact one’s mental health. A study by Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami found that touch deprivation can lead to a more remarkable instance of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. The rise of touch starvation can contribute to a surge in mental health issues. People experiencing touch starvation often report loneliness, depression, anxiety, insecurity, and low relationship satisfaction.

The prolonged lack of physical interaction can create deep isolation, exacerbating pre-existing mental health conditions and creating new ones. It’s a vicious cycle: the more touch-deprived an individual feels, the more their mental health may decline, further intensifying feelings of isolation and distress.

Moreover, touch starvation can also contribute to increased stress levels and weaker immune system response. A study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that hugging could act as a stress buffer, helping individuals better cope with conflict. Without such physical interactions, individuals might have a more challenging time dealing with stress, contributing to mental health issues.

How Professionals Are Tackling Touch Starvation?

Addressing touch starvation requires a multi-faceted approach. It involves acknowledging the importance of touch and its role in mental well-being, encouraging safe communication where possible, and finding alternative ways to fulfill our need for physical connection when contact is not feasible. In the wake of social distancing, individuals have sought creative solutions such as “quarantine bubbles” or “pods,” where small, trusted groups agree to socialize in person while limiting outside contact.

Professionals are exploring tele-touch technologies and virtual reality for simulating touch. Other strategies include self-soothing techniques, like taking a warm bath, engaging in mindful touching exercises, and owning pets, which can provide comfort and companionship. Psychotherapy can also play a significant role in managing feelings associated with touch starvation. Therapy can offer tools and strategies to cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation and address any underlying mental health conditions that might be exacerbated by touch deprivation.

The rise of touch starvation and its contribution to increasing mental health issues underscores the importance of physical connection in human life. Recognizing and addressing touch starvation is crucial to maintaining our mental well-being and human relationships. Society and each of us must find ways to fulfill our fundamental human need for touch in safe, acceptable, and creative practices.

In summary, it may be helpful to question if we are getting enough physical contact. Whatever life throws your way, remember that a hug may help make it more bearable. Break down in tears if need be, or jump for joy and go ahead and hug someone. You never know who might need it.

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