A Touching Crisis! What is Skin Hunger?
by Stacy Thomas | August 11, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
We are in a touching crisis. A few of them actually, but this one is about touching.
Human behaviour scientists are observing that humans are touching each other less and less. In fact they’re barely touching each other at all, and it’s actually a problem.
When is the last time you touched someone you didn’t live with? Chances are it’s been awhile, and the very thought of it feels weird.
A Crisis of Touch
We are experiencing a no-touching double whammy right now.
Our growing awareness of unwanted touching, and what it means to give consent, means that casual touching amongst peers and acquaintances is happening less and less often. Teachers are discouraged from touching their students; foster parents have reported hesitation to touch their charges due to fear that the touch may be misconstrued; and doctors have been warned against touching their patients in comfort. While some individuals in these roles have, in the past, been found to be nonconsensually touching their wards and patients—something abhorrent that we do not condone—the loss of appropriate touch from these professionals is unfortunate.
Of course, there’s also the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 we are literally afraid to touch each other for fear of contracting the virus, but also for fear of the social shaming that could result. Touching strangers, not to mention our friends, is a seriously taboo right now, and it’s hurting us as a species.
Researcher Tiffany Field, Ph.D. has been studying human touch since the 1980s, and in 1992 founded The Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami.
The TRI has conducted multiple studies proving that touch is non-optional for neurotypical people. While some neurotypes, and individuals with trauma may not be accepting of touch, she has identified that for the majority of people, touch is a basic need. For most people, a zero touch lifestyle quickly leads to a decline in mental and physical health.
We get angry when we’re hungry for touch (tangry?)
One of the studies conducted by Field observed forty teenagers at McDonald’s restaurants in Miami and Paris, to see how they interacted with each other. The teens in Paris touched each other more often in positive ways—leaning on each other, stroking, kissing, hugging, etc. The American teens spent more time self-touching, and being more verbally and physically aggressive with each other.
In a similar study, the same results were observed, but with younger children. Forty preschoolers in France and America were observed playing with their parents, and other children on playgrounds. The American parents and children touched each other less on average, and the children were more aggressive towards their parents, touched other children less, and tended to take other children’s toys more.
Longing for touch and skin hunger
We’ve been in self isolation for several months now. If you’re single or live alone, you might be starting to feel desperate for the feel of human skin, any human skin, against your own. That’s completely natural. That craving you’re feeling? It’s called “skin hunger,” and it’s been documented for years in a variety of examples. Most notably, touch-deprived newborn babies fail-to-thrive, while newborns who are massaged gain weight faster due to vagus nerve stimulation.
This study, which identified the vagus nerve as key in the regulation of the autonomic nervous system and socioemotional function, went on to explain the direct correlation between babies with high vagus nerve activity and joyful, interested facial expressions, and babies with low vagus nerve activity and looking-away or angry and sad expressions. Massage, and this applies to all ages of humans, is an excellent way to stimulate the vagus nerve.
Affection and healthy modes of communication are learned from what we observe, and are immersed in as we grow. In North America, casual touching becomes more and more taboo every year while society gets increasingly concerned about what’s inappropriate, and what isn’t.
Lack of touch can impact our professional lives
Beneficial touching doesn’t need to be limited to affectionate touching between family members. Basic forms of human touch can make huge differences in peoples’ lives. In one study performed in a university, a lecturing professor lightly patted select students on the arm or shoulder as they passed. Those who were touched were more likely to speak up in class than those who hadn’t. Some of the conclusions drawn from this are that those of us who enjoyed regular, casual touching from our families and friends as children were more successful socially, and as adults, professionally.
Which is why a lot of us are turning to professionals to feed our hungry skin.
EFT and shiatsu practitioner Heather Donaldson has witnessed the effect that gentle touch can have on a wide variety of people, including those suffering from PTSD, those who are nearing the end of their lives, and who are trying to cope with day-to-day stress.
She has heard countless clients tell her they feel emotionally and physically “lighter” after her treatments.
EFT tapping is an evidence-based acupressure technique that has been proven effective for depression, stress, and anxiety. It’s popular, because not only does it actually help, but it can be self-administered. Donaldson admits that self-tapping is effective, but there is something about another human delivering the touch that makes a vital difference. The experience of another’s touch, she says, has the capability of bringing about a higher level of healing—an energetic healing.
Touching for spiritual connection
Donaldson states that, “I’ve come to realize that it’s not just the biological or physiological changes that are going on there, but there’s kind of a spiritual connection. It allows people to get in touch with something that’s beyond; call it source, call it god, call it the universe … when they can get in touch with that, the truth of unity, that they do belong, that they are loved.”
The act of touching another in a therapeutic context bridges an energetic gap, and helps us connect more deeply with what’s around us, what’s “out there”, Donaldson surmises. Through the release of emotions that is triggered by tapping touch, healing is facilitated.
“I call myself the midwife of emotions, and I go with [clients] through the delivery of the deepest core beliefs and emotions.”
Touch to communicate
In 2010, a revealing study was conducted by Dacher Keltner Ph.D, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley.
Two participants were placed on either side of a wall with a hole in it. One person put their arm through the hole, and the other was instructed to attempt to convey an emotion to them through the means of a one-second touch. Fear, happiness, anger, sadness, gratitude, sympathy and love were all interpreted much more accurately through this means than was expected. Participants were able to differentiate between the different emotions better than had been demonstrated in similar experiments that focused on facial expressions and voice.
We need touch to communicate. We can’t simply rely on our voices, or texting, or information on a computer screen. Without being able to touch each other, a whole world of nuanced messaging is lost to us—we only get half the story.
Healing and touching go hand in hand
I wasn’t raised in a physically affectionate family. We expressed ourselves with our words, and affectionate touching was awkward and rare. As a consequence, I shied away from hugging friends and acquaintances for most of my adult life. It felt strange—forced. I didn’t get it.
I was also shy in general. I didn’t talk much, kept myself to myself, and struggled to be assertive. I think that the way I was raised, with not a lot of physical touching (other than fighting with my two brothers) has a lot to do with my quest to learn how to communicate in healthy ways with others, and to have healthy relationships, in general.
As I’ve learned to let down some of my barriers and let others in, I’ve become more open to touch. I’m learning how to hug. I catch myself reaching out to a friend in moments of joy, and grasping them, touching an arm or a shoulder in a natural way that surprises me. As my inner self heals, so does my ability to give and receive loving touch.
Michelangelo said, “To touch is to give life,” telling us that even before science could explain why human touch is essential to our survival, we were intrinsically aware of its importance.
As humans, our most basic, primal need is to be loved, to belong, to feel safe and taken care of. A simple touch, even just a brushed arm or a pat on the back from an acquaintance, can signal feelings of acceptance. Touch lets us know that we are seen, we are heard, and we matter.
It’s time to reach out and touch… someone—but hey, wash your hands and get consent first, okay?
Practitioners like Heather Donaldson can be accessed through Which Doctor. Many practitioners offer opportunities for consensual, treatment-focused touch. Touching others should only happen with consent from all parties.
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.