The physical effects of touch deprivation

One of the most debilitating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic was the physical distancing that kept us from being in touch—literally—with our loved ones. We survived by means of phone calls, Skype, and Zoom, of course, but many of us suffered acutely from “touch hunger” or, what social scientists call “affection deprivation.” This is a state in which we want or need more affection than we receive—with negative consequences on both the emotional and physical levels.

As this article in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry explains:

Humans are neurologically wired for touch receptivity. Social touch is a common and mutual way of expressing affection, belonging, care, and intimacy. These forms of touch are necessary for social and cognitive development throughout life—and not just for humans, but across species. Here’s why:

Touch hunger impairs well-being

Similar to regular hunger, “touch hunger” tells your body that something important is missing. In this case, we are deprived of the security, intimacy, and affection that comes from physical contact with people who are close to us.

Most people are aware that touch is essential to infant health and development. Newborns who are seldom held suffer long-term consequences, even if their needs for food, warmth, and other physical support are met. Throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood, affectionate touch contributes to both psychological health and the body’s ability to manage stress and reduce inflammation.

That’s because soothing physical contact, such as hugging, hand-holding, and even hair brushing, releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, calms our central nervous system, and boosts immune function. (A hug a day keeps the doctor away!)

Our need for touch continues as we age. Think about it: for most of us, there are very few experiences that convey a greater sense of safety than being held. Among the elderly with dementia, affectionate touch can enhance calmness and responsiveness when nothing else can. Indeed, one of the most heartbreaking consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic was the fact that people had to die alone, without the comforting presence of their loved ones, whom they might not have seen for over a year.

Even without a pandemic, we can feel touch hunger when we’re going through experiences of greater stress, anxiety and loneliness. (And interestingly, men report significantly higher average affection deprivation than women.) In other words, during stressful times our need for affectionate touch increases—while its benefits also increase. Hugging can bring down stress-induced blood pressure and heart rates, and there is evidence it even protects the body against viral infection.

How to feed your touch hunger

If you’re in a romantic relationship, chances are your needs for affectionate touch are being met. This is not guaranteed, of course, as individual needs for touch can vary. Some people are even “touch avoidant,” meaning they often find interpersonal touch stressful instead of pleasurable. This can be the result of a physical condition like rheumatoid arthritis, mental health conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, or a history of trauma or sexual abuse.

For those experiencing “touch hunger,” however, there are alternatives that don’t involve a romantic personal relationship: friends that are close enough to hug, pets you can cuddle, a weighted blanket, a body pillow to sleep with, restorative yoga (which uses blankets and other props to surround and support the body and calm the nervous system), a manicure or pedicure, giving personal care to others (such as infants, toddlers, or the elderly), and two of my personal favorites: facials and massage.

Don’t deprive yourself of touch! It’s an important part of #ModernWellness!



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