Lack of human touch

Touch Starvation: What to Know

Written by Alexandra Benisek

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 19, 2021

In this Article

  • What Is Touch Starvation?
  • Why Touch Is Important
  • Effects of Touch Starvation
  • How to Fight Touch Starvation

What Is Touch Starvation?

Touch starvation is a condition that happens when you don’t get as much physical touch as you’re used to -- or any at all. You crave contact but can’t interact with others for some reason. It’s also known as touch deprivation or skin hunger.

People may develop touch starvation because of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it can happen with any lack of physical touch, such as children in orphanages and elderly people in hospitals who don’t get enough positive contact.

Why Touch Is Important

Human touch is a huge part of how we interact with others. We shake our co-workers’ hands, hug our loved ones, and high-five our friends. We bond through physical touch.

Skin is the largest organ in your body and sends good and bad touch sensations to your brain. When you engage in pleasant touch, like a hug, your brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. This makes you feel good and firms up emotional and social bonds while lowering anxiety and fear.

This reaction begins at birth. When babies are born, doctors suggest that mothers hold and comfort them often to promote healthy development. This human-to-human interaction keeps up throughout our lives. Even in adulthood, human touch helps regulate sleep and digestion, build your immune system, and fight infections.

Effects of Touch Starvation

When you don’t get enough physical touch, you can become stressed, anxious, or depressed. As a response to stress, your body makes a hormone called cortisol. This can cause your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate to go up, with bad effects for your immune and digestive systems.

These things can lead to worse quality of sleep and a higher risk of infections. Other medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure, may get worse.

Long-term touch starvation could even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How to Fight Touch Starvation

There are ways to fight the effects of touch starvation, even when you can’t physically interact with other people:

Video chat. They don’t fully replace human touch, but video calls let us visually interact with others. They may ease some of the symptoms of touch starvation.

Online exercise.Yoga or workout classes online help you interact in a social setting, creating a friendly environment so you feel less lonely.

Singing and dancing. Activities like these can boost your oxytocin levels even when you can’t see people.

Interacting with pets. Though they’re not human, playing with your pet can help you stay relaxed. Because it’s a form of interaction, it could ease some touch starvation symptoms. Studies show that oxytocin levels peak in dog owners when they caress their pets.

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info

What Is Touch Starvation? 20 Things to Watch for, What to Do, and More

Humans are wired to be touched. From birth until the day we die, our need for physical contact remains.

Being touch starved — also known as skin hunger or touch deprivation — occurs when a person experiences little to no touch from other living things.

Indeed. The condition seems to be more common in countries that are becoming increasingly touch averse.

For example, a 2015 study measured to what degree people welcomed touch in five countries. Finland and France were found to be at the top, while the United Kingdom was at the bottom.

Why cultures vary in their acceptance of touch, no one is sure. It may be due to the rise in technology use, a fear of touching being viewed as inappropriate, or cultural factors.

But research from 2014 has found that missing out on regular human touch can have some serious and long-lasting effects.

Definitely not. Any and all positive touch is considered beneficial.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are losing out on workplace handshakes, friendly hugs, or pats on the back, which can result in feelings of touch starvation.

For some, the pandemic has also brought a decline in sensual touching, such as holding hands, back scratching, and foot rubbing, too.

Scientists have found that a system of nerve fibers, called C-tactile afferents, exists to recognize any form of gentle touch.

In fact, according to a 2017 study, the ideal touching speed is about 3 centimeters per second.

This releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.”

Skin-to-skin contact is vital not only for mental and emotional health but physical health, too.

When you feel snowed under or pressured, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. One of the biggest things touch can do is reduce such stress, allowing the immune system to work the way it should.

Touch can also calm certain bodily functions, such as your heart rate and blood pressure.

It does so by stimulating pressure receptors that transport signals to the vagus nerve. This nerve connects the brain to the rest of the body. It uses the signals to slow the pace of the nervous system.

In early life, touch is thought to be crucial for building healthy relationships by stimulating pathways for oxytocin, the natural antidepressant serotonin, and the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine.

Plus, it can tackle loneliness. According to a 2017 study, gentle touch can reduce both pain and feelings of social exclusion.

There’s no definitive way to know. But in a nutshell, you may feel overwhelmingly lonely or deprived of affection.

These symptoms may be combined with:

  • feelings of depression
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • low relationship satisfaction
  • difficulty sleeping
  • a tendency to avoid secure attachments

You may also subconsciously do things to simulate touch, such as taking long, hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, and even holding on to a pet.

Some people closely link touch with trust. If they don’t trust a person, they’re unlikely to want that person to touch them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t long for the benefits of a hug or handshake.

For example, not liking touch is sometimes reported by people on the neurodiverse spectrum and people who are asexual.

It may also be a result of childhood experiences. A 2012 study suggests that people whose parents were regular huggers were more likely to hug people in adulthood.

Failing to experience frequent positive touch as a child may affect the development of the oxytocin system and the child’s intimacy and social skills — although this isn’t true for everyone.

Touch starvation doesn’t have to last forever.

Here are some simple ways to welcome more affection into your liferight now.

Keep in mind you may need to dial these activities back a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic, or avoid them until your local health officials give the OK:

  • Try out a massage. Whether you ask a loved one or visit a professional, massages can help you relax and enjoy the benefits of another person’s touch.
  • Spend some quality time with animals. Often all too happy to cuddle, pets are the ideal soothing mechanism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of animals transmitting the coronavirus to people is low, based on limited information currently available.
  • Get your nails done. A manicure or pedicure may give you the human contact you need, and a new look to boot. When your local health department gives the OK, think about dressing up your hands and feet.
  • Visit the hair salon. If you don’t fancy a cut, book yourself a wash and blow-dry for ultimate relaxation.
  • Learn to dance. Most slow dances are built around skin-to-skin contact. That may not be a good choice during the pandemic. But as soon as you’re vaccinated and your health department gives a thumbs-up, think about learning some new moves.
  • Go to a cuddle party. Yes, these are real. And no, they’re not as strange as they sound. As soon as you and your friends are vaccinated and your health department gives the go-ahead for indoor gatherings, consider trying it out.

With lockdowns, closed businesses, and medical advice to physically distance and avoid touching people not in your household, human touch has dwindled to a slow stream. For some, it has dried up altogether.

Medical facilities like the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and the Texas Medical Center warn that touch starvation is real. It’s important to find ways to keep in touch during the pandemic.

Sustaining regular touch during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging. If you live with other people or are part of a pod, there are likely people you can touch safely. You might try the tips below.

For yourself

  • Sit close to your loved ones. Instead of spreading out on the couch, make an effort to cuddle up during your Netflix sprees.
  • Greet household members with a hug. If hugging people within your household or pod is safe, try this type of greeting. It may help both of you satisfy your touch hunger.
  • Use touch when appropriate. In a romantic relationship, hold hands or cuddle. In platonic ones, reassure people with a touch to the arm or a pat on the back. Always make sure the touch is safe and other people are comfortable before going ahead.

For your loved ones

  • Give them plenty of positive touch. This can range from gentle strokes to full-on cuddling a few times a day.
  • Avoid associating touch with negativity. Don’t pinch or push or do anything that takes away the feel-good vibes of physical contact.
  • Let children be close to you as often as possible. Allowing your child to sit on your lap or gently massaging your baby are important for bonding and the emotional growth of the child.

If you can’t touch safely

Maybe you’re one of the 35.7 million Americans who live alone. Or maybe you live with people who work in high-risk settings. Or perhaps touch in pandemic circumstances just isn’t worth the risk to you.

In these and countless other scenarios, you may not have the opportunity for touch, or you may not feel safe with any human touch right now. There are still ways you can help satisfy your touch hunger — without physical contact.

Try the tips below. They might not be the real thing, but they do provide human contact and interaction:

  • Meet new people or connect with friends online. Technology provides many ways for online contact. Try video chat or virtual exercise classes or book clubs.
  • Wave to neighbors or passersby. Most of us take a daily walk. Try waving and maybe even meeting new people, from a physical distance, of course.
  • Host an online dinner. Invite family and friends to share a meal via a video app like Skype or FaceTime.
  • Connect via text and email. Be sure to use lots of emojis or gifs that emphasize physical touch, like thumbs-up or waving hands.
  • Talk with neighbors outside. Chat at a safe distance through a window or from a porch or backyard.
  • Try new outdoor group activities. Some group activities let you be with others without the risk involved in close quarters or touching. Try classes that involve physical distancing like yoga, painting, or tai chi.

If you’re feeling touch starved, you haven’t sealed your fate. There are plenty of ways to beat the condition and inspire positive, affectionate touch in those around you.

Lauren Sharkey is a journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.

"The absence of a non-verbal communication channel greatly deforms communication"

With the development of technology, Internet communication has become one of the basic norms of socialization. Online communications are increasingly having an impact not only on the development of society as a whole, but also on our daily behavior. Natalya Antonova, Candidate of Psychology, Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, NRU HSE, and Natalia Koryagina, PhD in Psychology, Senior Lecturer of the Department of Psychology, told how these changes are taking place as part of the seminar “Digital Transformation of Communication: Peculiarities and Consequences.” nine

iStock , notes Natalia Antonova. Now not information, but communication is the meaning-forming means of the modern communication society. Not the level of knowledge is the basis of social inequality, but the degree of access to this or that information. nine0003

“If communication changes, then the nature of communication changes, the person changes. We become different, we don’t notice it, but it’s true,” emphasizes the HSE Associate Professor. Today, in our social reality, the “I” as a regulatory and meaning-forming structure often becomes redundant. Only the staging of one's individuality remains necessary.

We stop noticing the difference between virtuality and reality in communications, the boundaries between the circles of communication in these environments are blurred, the expert notes. People tend to transfer their communication habits from the real world to the virtual world, not realizing that in life their communication is interpersonal in nature, and on the Internet it turns into mass communication. Thus, there is a mixture and change of norms, new forms of interaction are formed and a new culture arises. For example, a period at the end of a sentence or capitalizing on “you” can now be perceived as aggression, adds Natalia Antonova. nine0003

Sometimes the trend works in the opposite direction: interpersonal communication acquires the features of mass communication, which can lead to specific conflicts. For example, employees can lose their positions due to unsuccessful comments or photos on social networks, not realizing that they are already acting there as participants in mass communication, the expert explains.

“The absence of a non-verbal communication channel greatly distorts communication, because through it we receive 70–80% of information about another person and his personality,” the expert continues. The non-verbal aspect of communication is being replaced, no matter how strange it may sound, emoticons. They form a new language of communication, within which an incorrectly chosen emoticon can even lead to conflicts. nine0003

Another feature of digital communications that has made the behavioral norm that is almost impossible in personal, offline communication is delayed feedback. Having written a letter, we can go about our business, knowing that the interlocutor will answer us in a few hours, the expert drew attention. The transformation of communication norms affects even telephone communication: the call is already perceived rather negatively, it has been replaced by correspondence in the messenger.

Anonymity and creativity

Internet space gives people anonymity and the illusion of freedom, liberates and promotes the development of creativity, said Natalya Koryagina. Research shows that people are more free to express themselves online than they are in face-to-face communication. Communication barriers disappear, and you can already write to a complete stranger, whom you would hardly approach on the street.

“The specificity of the language on the Internet is anonymity, the physical inaccessibility of users and the relative insufficiency of means for expression,” said Natalya Koryagina. From anonymity follows the absence of a social context and most of the social prohibitions characteristic of reality. The lack of expressive means makes communication difficult, leading to compensatory self-creation, such as internet slang and acronyms, she adds. nine0003

One of the features of cyberspace is that it lives outside of time and is perceived by a person as space. Even from the point of view of language, we are always “entering” somewhere and “leaving”, “sit” or “wander”, “observe” worlds and communities. Written speech dominates online, but it is also transforming - it is being folded, acquiring the features of oral speech and its own specific features.

At the same time, the phenomenon of multiple identities is emerging on the Internet. The user often develops several pages on social networks: personal, professional, creative, dedicated to a specific hobby. nine0003

“People do not have the opportunity to express all aspects of their multifaceted “I” in real communication, while network communication provides them with such an opportunity. The multiplicity and variability of identity in virtual communication reflects the real multiplicity of a social object in the real world,” said Natalia Koryagina.

At the end of the seminar, Natalia Antonova stressed that the transformation of communication in organizational structures is an equally important aspect of modern communication. A wave of changes in the organizational structure, business processes and interactions with customers falls on the employees of the organization, which inevitably leads to resistance, opposition and even sabotage. “Here, a certain preparation of people is necessary, it is necessary to analyze the readiness of people for changes at the personal level, and not just at the organizational level,” she summed up. nine0003

Skin hunger: why do we miss touching each other so much?

  • William Parke
  • BBC Future

Sign up for our 'Context' newsletter to help you understand what's going on.

Image copyright Getty Images

No hugs, no handshakes, no just a light touch on the shoulder or arm. Skin (or tactile) hunger is something that many suffer from without even realizing it, and not just in pandemic quarantine. nine0054

For many of us, the past few months of self-isolation - when there was no physical contact with either friends or colleagues - could feel like years.

"I can't do my job without touching a person. It's part of my job," says Joe Adenuga, a makeup artist based in London.

Since the end of March, when the lockdown was announced in the UK, beauty professionals across the country have been forced to stop working.

"I enjoy chatting with my clients. And being close to them is very important. I usually sit directly in front of the client and constantly touch his face during work. When the work stopped, it was a serious psychological blow for me, especially in the first two weeks," says Adenuga. nine0003

  • Insight into ourselves: How the coronavirus has changed our grooming habits
  • Will Covid-19 end handshakes forever?
  • Coronavirus: why do we touch our face all the time and how to deal with it?
  • How to survive self-isolation and not part? Psychologists answer

And it's not even about the loss of earnings, she emphasizes. Adenuga is accustomed to the seasonality of her work. Most of her clients are brides, and weddings peak at certain times of the year. There is a quiet season when she has less work, and then, on the contrary, she herself pays photo models to replenish her portfolio for advertising on Instagram. nine0003

"I miss my job so much," says Adenuga. "My husband says, damn, don't come near me with your brush!"

But it's not just the beauty industry that has been affected by the lockdown: Social distancing has made it difficult for many to work, both for tailors and personal fitness trainers. Some have adapted to use videoconferencing.

"When the world began to move into the virtual space, I started video consultations, explaining to others how to do make-up," says Adenuga. . nine0003

Adenuga suffers from the so-called skin (tactile) hunger - a condition in which a person experiences an acute lack of touch, skin-to-skin contacts. She, like many others, during the lockdown, it became very clear how much less emotional life has become with social distancing.

Image copyright MCM London

Image caption

Adenuga says she can't work without touching her clients without being in close proximity to them

Someone who lives with a large family or rents with friends is a little more lucky: they can hug, touch each other, like makeup artist Mary Greenwell, who described her feelings on Instagram.

Her followers reacted immediately. "Isn't it funny that a human touch - and not a lover or even a relative - turned out to be so important to us?" "So many older people miss the human touch - sometimes the only person who touches them is the hairdresser. And that's an important part of being human, right? My thoughts are with those old people who live alone." nine0003

But why do we crave intimacy with others? And why is human touch so hard to replace?

Cory Floyd, professor at the University of Arizona (USA) - an expert on the problems of lack of care. Tactile hunger, lack of touch is just one aspect. Older people may also suffer from other deficits - for example, they simply have no one to talk to.

Image copyright, Getty Images

Image caption,

Tactile hunger is not limited to the young

The situation in which almost the whole world now finds itself is unique in that those who previously felt isolated from society remained so, while others who had never experienced anything like this before were deprived of such a simple element life is like touching another person.

You can communicate both by phone and via video. But this does not give us the opportunity to touch each other, and the consequences of this are already visible.

According to Floyd, we experience tactile hunger when we notice a discrepancy between the amount of touch we want and the amount we actually get. This is very similar to the usual feeling of hunger - we notice it only when we do not get enough food. nine0003

Image copyright, Getty Images

Image caption,

Moscow hairdressers have reopened despite Russia still being among the countries with the highest number of coronavirus cases

"People are missing touch, even if they don't realize it themselves - says Floyd, "They just don't feel right, and it's really because they haven't hugged anyone for three weeks in a row, haven't touched their grandchildren, or haven't been around their parents, partner. "

It is clear that in some people this hunger is stronger. This is a very personal trait, although, as Floyd notes, there are very few who do not need human touch at all. nine0003

"Some people try to avoid touching," he says, "and some people just need it. But most people are somewhere in the middle of these two opposites."

But in general, those who feel lonely suffer more from the lack of touch.

"And the loneliest, according to research, are young people," he emphasizes. "In second place are the elderly. Both of them suffer the most from tactile hunger."

According to Floyd, the life of the elderly in lockdown has not changed much - except that they have lost the opportunity to see their grandchildren. But the hardest hit were those who, in normal times, were surrounded by friends and loved ones on a daily basis. nine0003

Image copyright, EPA

Photo caption,

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, a woman hugs her 82-year-old father through a "hugging curtain"

Skip Podcast and continue reading.


What was that?

We quickly, simply and clearly explain what happened, why it's important and what's next.


The End of the Story Podcast

Various gadgets and devices are trying to replace the human touch - from telematic "Internet prostheses" to soft and warm, human-sized pillows. The replacement is unequal. nine0003

In the case of telematics, remote touch is controlled by the hand of a loved one, and the realization of this can be pleasant. But this is not at all the same as the real touch of a living person.

Before the dangerous coronavirus began to spread around the planet, people who felt skin hunger could at least go to special "hug parties" where strangers, by mutual agreement, could touch each other, and sometimes very emotionally, but under controlled and therefore safe conditions. nine0003

However, this solution is not perfect either. Such a touch, although quite real, but, according to Floyd, he lacks sincerity.

"Of course, it's better than nothing (if you don't mind such touches), but still, you can't replace the touch of a loved one, a loved one," he emphasizes.

"When touch is complemented by a positive emotional connection with another person, it multiplies its usefulness."

Image copyright, Getty Images

Image caption,

Someone to hug? Cuddle your or your neighbor's cat - and you will be happy and happy

And in this sense, even touching your pet - a dog or a cat - can be extremely beneficial. Unlike "hug parties", your pet's affection cannot be questioned, it's real. Your dog or cat also enjoys tactile contact with you.

  • From love to herpes: is it dangerous to kiss pets

Animal shelters around the world are reporting an increased demand for their pets, and in the US, some shelters even have no one left - they have all been sorted out.

A number of US healthcare workers have called for no more handshakes - there have even been proposals to abandon the habit of shaking hands altogether, even when the pandemic is over.

As Adenuga now reflects, returning to work will mean for her that she will have to wear gloves and a mask to receive clients. nine0003

While she is at a loss as to how she will be able to carry out all the previous manipulations with gloves - after all, most of her work involves touching a person's face. But she hopes she finds a way.

Image copyright, Getty Images

Image caption,

Will the pandemic force us to give up touching completely - at least at work?

What worries her more is that with her face hidden behind a mask, it will be more difficult for her to find contact with client brides, who are often very nervous before the wedding, and earlier Adenuga managed to calm them down, creating a relaxed atmosphere of light chatter.

Learn more