PHN Explores: Skin hunger: Why we’re craving touch and how to cope during the coronavirus pandemic (From The Washington Post)

PHN Content By Mat Edelson


If We Had Written the Headline

“See me; Feel me; Touch me; Heal me” (with apologies to The Who)

Why You Should Care

If you’ve been living alone during the pandemic, we know you’ve been toughing it out, telling everyone you feel fine when, in fact, you feel anything but. Having no one to touch or be touched by stinks, and that’s putting it mildly. We probably don’t have to tell you touch deprivation is damaging to your mental and physical health. Fortunately, there are things you can do right now to feel better.


What's New(s)

As the experts in this Washington Post video explain, the sense of touch is ingrained from birth, so for touch to suddenly be gone from our lives can be devastating. Who knew that the absence of hugs and touch could even impact our immune system? We have to admit, the term “skin hunger” nails our need for physical contact during the pandemic. But even if you’re all alone (as in, not even a goldfish in the house), there are things you can do to help overcome this sensation of loneliness that is the body’s signal that we’re touch deprived.

The trick is to engage your other four senses (sight, hearing, taste, and smell) as much as possible. Interestingly, even self-touch, such as massaging your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs can lessen that sense of skin hunger. Other things you can do include:

  • Listening to music;
  • Making a favorite, comforting recipe (as one expert suggests, bonus points if it’s your mom’s recipe and you have mom on Zoom at the same time);
  • Practicing yoga or gently stretching for a few minutes;
  • Burning incense, a scented candle, or engaging some other form of aromatherapy (believe it or not, you can even buy the smell of chocolate-chip cookies in spray form);
  • Painting anything;
  • Wraping yourself up in your favorite blanket and curling into the corner of your favorite couch (just don’t stay there for a week); and/or
  • Taking a nice, long shower.

Will any of these things completely replace the feeling you get hugging your best friend? Of course not. That’s why we love hugging best friends.

But until then, the idea is that by continually stimulating our other senses, our loss of touch becomes less intense, less overwhelming. It’s a bit like what happens to people deprived of sight or hearing; if it happens early enough in their lives, their other senses sharpen to lessen the impact of the sense they’ve lost. In this sense (no pun intended) we can be grateful that this feeling of skin hunger is truly temporary, and that soon enough (hopefully) we’ll be able to hug others to our heart’s content.


Story Source

The Washington Post, May 20, 2020, by Nicole Ellis. See the video


Story Expert

Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of communications, University of Arizona, former editor-in-chief of Journal of Family Communication; Sarvenaz Sepehri, PsyD (doctorate of psychology), clinical psychologist, Sacramento, CA

Bonus Biscuit

Tiffany Field, PhD, is the founder/director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. The institute does fascinating research on the importance of touch to infants and adults, often with colleagues from Duke, Harvard and elsewhere. Here’s an interview Field did with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.” Even During Quarantine, You Need A ‘Daily Dose Of Touch’ (Read the transcript/listen to the interview)

Bonus Bonus Biscuit

Sometimes it just helps to hear first-hand how other people are coping with being told “don’t touch anyone!” From Public Radio International’s show The World: Human touch is essential. How are people coping with ‘skin hunger’? (See and listen to the story)

Related Stories

We wanted to find a few different angles on this issue. Here’s how your nervous system experiences touch and touch deprivation. From Wired: Skin hunger helps explain your desperate longing for human touch (See the story)

And here’s how touch deprivation affects an already vulnerable population; people with disabilities who often live alone. From Global News (Canada):  ‘Skin hunger’ is real, and it can severely harm your mental health (See the story)