Babies spend the majority of their infancy in the arms of loved ones. Parents pass hours tickling the baby’s full tummy or rocking the child to sleep, and when relatives stop by, they are desperate to squeeze rosy cheeks or plant kisses on the infant’s bare heads. And usually the baby loves it, taking in all the affection with toothless smiles and hiccup-y giggles.
Skin-on-skin contact is essential to an infant’s health and well-being. The physical affection teaches the brain to associate human contact with pleasure and creates a foundation for empathy. This sensation also produces the hormone oxytocin, which generates a feeling of comfort. Without it, babies can actually stop growing and—even if they’re receiving proper nutrition—die.
However, as these children grow up and yearn for independence, the amount of physical affection they receive begins to decrease. Adolescents start resenting the hugs and kisses their parents demand; the teenager, at some point, learns that it’s uncool to display affection. There are also more and more people deciding to live on their own, causing the intimacy of a “family” home to vanish.
And while there is nothing wrong with this—living a solitary lifestyle can be empowering—not seeking or having people to turn to for physical affection is often detrimental to one’s mental health and well-being.
Just as a stomach needs a proper amount of food to thrive, a human’s largest sensory organ has a need for physical contact. And not fulfilling that need, as has become more common in recent decades, can bring about a deep, often subconscious desire for physical affection, contributing to poor health.
The term for this condition is “skin hunger,” and in America, the condition’s presence is growing.
The Prominence of Skin Hunger Today
Most officials contribute skin hunger’s prominence to the public’s substantial connection to technology and the disconnected lifestyle a majority of the population leads. In America, work life and student life is often demanding, allowing little time for intimate, one-on-one periods with friends, family and loved ones. When individuals do find time to be around loved ones, exhaustion or unhappiness frequently stall or prevent intimate interactions, both of sexual and nonsexual nature.
According to Psychology Today, there are more Americans living alone than in previous years. One in four Americans report not having a single person to talk to about important issues, and around 40 percent of adults say they’re lonely, “…which represents a major increase over the 20 percent of adults who said the same back in 1980,” according to “The Atlantic.”
Part of this comes from Americans’ desire for independence and to strive forward in careers rather than in family life, but there’s also a misguided belief that technology, and its capability of connecting us with millions of people in vast amounts of way, is personal, when in fact those connections and interactions are generally dispassionate compared to those that take place in person. Expressions of love and support that are now regularly sent by text message or Facebook post are often believed to be a proper substitute for a loving embrace, but this is not the case.
In an article for Broadly, Professor Kory Floyd says, “There’s an immediacy to touch that words don’t have. And there are certain health benefits that seem to be more pronounced when affection is expressed through tactile ways.”
And without those physical expressions, one’s health can be harmed.
How Does It Affect Your Health?
Unlike with infants, a lack of physical human contact among teenagers and adults is less likely to result in death, but its importance does not diminish with age.
In an article for Vice, Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute says, “People who are touch hungry usually present as being depressed individuals. They’re withdrawn; their voice intonation contour is flat.”
On top of coming across as depressed, those not getting a proper amount of physical affection have been linked to having high levels of stress, insomnia and anxiety. They can feel worthless, unlovable and sometimes undeserving of the human contact they desperately need. Michael Gregory, a mental health counselor, says when one lacks a sense of touch, “You no longer feel connected to your environment and even develop anti-social behaviors. You develop a fear to form new relationships because of the possibilities of losing them one day.”
And while these symptoms of skin hunger present as poor mental health, they may only be symptoms of skin hunger and not a mental illness. Talking to a doctor is the best way to decipher between the two, but it doesn’t hurt to fuel the skin’s need for touch with some simple solutions.
Overcoming Skin Hunger
If you’re touch hungry, one of the more obvious ways to seek physical affection is to reach out to loved ones. Holding a movie night allows for the opportunity to snuggle up with friends or family on the couch with bowls of popcorn and M&Ms, while spa nights enable roommates to brush each other’s hair and apply face masks.
There’s also nothing wrong with simply asking a parent or a roommate for a hug at the end of a long day. Voicing a desire for intimacy usually won’t make loved ones think little of the askers. Rather, chances are, they are in need of the affection as well. But since not everyone has close relationships or people they can turn to for hugs, there are other solutions to feeding a need for touch.
There are subtle ways to sneak human contact into one’s day to day life. A hairdresser will provide comfort as they wash and style hair. Deep tissue massages are known for being consoling. Even shaking hands with new people one meets can fuel the skin’s desire for touch.
There are also “free hug” campaigns the adventurous can initiate. These only require a busy street corner and a cardboard sign with the words “free hugs” written on both sides. Juan Mann came up with this idea when he found himself friendless in his hometown. He took to the streets with his sign and found comfort in the embraces of strangers, who in return voiced their solace for the brief moment when they were in Mann’s arms.
Seeking a professional cuddler is another option. For a fee, a cuddler will hug or hold the patron for a set period of time and talk about whatever the patron wants to talk about—or not talk at all. According to The New York Times, this newfound business idea promoted through sites like the Snuggle Buddies and Cuddlist has deemed the nonsexual touch cuddlers provide as therapeutic and the “latest thing in wellness, beyond yoga and meditation.”
And lastly, while “The Nicest Place on The Internet” won’t feed your skin’s need for touch, it will provide some momentary comfort until an alternative solution is available.