SKIN HUNGER: Why This Lockdown is Taking a Toll on Our Desire to Touch

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The coronavirus has caused our mental health to be under siege.  We are stuck inside without an end in sight, which would depress even the most mentally stable of us.   We can’t even visualize the positives of being at home and getting a chance to learn new skills, clean our piles of papers, or cherishing time with our family.  We are totally burnt out, waiting to calibrate what normal will be like after this shutdown.  Uncertainty reigns over everything we do. 

For widows and those who have experienced a great loss, the lack of touch is one of the hardest parts of this new physical distancing world.  Those who are alone are experiencing skin hunger. Skin hunger is the biological need for human touch.  Parents in the NICU are told to hold their babies on their naked chests for comfort.  When the skin is touched, it stimulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to the brain, reducing your heart rate, your blood pressure, and allowing for relaxation.  Without touch, deprivation takes a toll emotionally and physically. We are experiencing touch starvation and it isn’t pretty.  We are social creatures and crave touch and intimacy for survival.  The sudden abruptness of being in touch starvation is a rude shock to our system.  Oh, how I long to high-five someone!

There have been numerous studies that found that the skin can communicate positive and negative touch stimuli to our sensory neurons.  The epidermis is mainly composed of billions of keratinocyte cells which release a chemical called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which in turn activates receptors on the sensory nerve to signal the sensation of touch to the brain.  When we hug or touch someone, our brain releases oxytocin (aka “the cuddle hormone”) which increases positive feel-good sensations and at the same time decreases anxiety. Some studies have shown that hugging boosts our immune systems.

Since there is no end in sight for COVID-19, until then we have to find a way to satiate our skin hunger.  Petting a dog or cat is a good start or maybe finding a way to self-massage.  I recently bought a Hypervolt massager. If nothing else, it gets the kinks out after my long daily walks!

Until the fear of infection has abated, I will fantasize about a future that allows touching, hugging, and kissing.  I can hear Louis Armstrong crooning in my head: “Give me a kiss to build a dream on, and my imagination will thrive upon that kiss.”

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