What does it mean to be ‘touch starved”
Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT — Written by Louise Morales-Brown on January 19, 2021
Edited By Alex Santiago
Touch starvation refers to the longing for touch or physical contact from other living beings. It typically occurs when a person experiences little to no physical contact for a prolonged amount of time.
Humans are largely social beings, and some research suggests that many people feel comfort, security, and satisfaction from physical contact. Deprivation of physical touch may result in people experiencing negative sensations, such as feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
There may be a growing number of people experiencing touch starvation due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Physical distancing and social restrictions to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are limiting exposure to other people and reducing physical contact between humans.
People may also refer to touch starvation as touch depression, touch deprivation, affection deprivation, touch hunger, or skin hunger.
This article will discuss what touch starvation is, its potential psychological complications, and some ways to help prevent it.
What does it mean?
Touch starvation refers to the desire for physical contact that people may experience after receiving little to no physical interaction with others for a period of time. Some people may compare it to the desire for food during hunger.
Research has found that touch is important for humans when it comes to communicating emotions and maintaining relationships. Many studies emphasize the importance of social touch in human development.
Touch can activate particular areas of the brain and may influence thought processes, reactions, and physiological responses.
For example, research suggests that affective touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex. This area of the brain is involved with emotional and social behaviors, as well as learning and decision making.
Touch can also be calming and reassuring for people experiencing distress. One 2017 study notes that embracing and patting children in distress has a soothing effect. A 2015 study even suggests that human touch may help fight off infections.
Therefore, having a lack of physical contact may result in some people experiencing what many refer to as touch starvation.
Touch starvation may increase feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety. In turn, this may trigger a variety of negative physiological effects.
For example, to combat stress, the body releases the hormone cortisol. This hormone can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension and suppress the digestive and immune systems, which could increase the risk of infection.
One 2018 study notes that skin can communicate positive and negative touch stimuli to sensory nerves, which convey the sensation of touch to the brain. In response to low intensity stimulation of the skin, such as touch or stroking, the body releases oxytocin, which some people call the “love hormone.”
Oxytocin has many potential benefits, such as contributing to everyday well-being and stress reduction. Therefore, regular touch may help maintain general well-being, while a lack of physical contact may facilitate negative psychological and physiological effects.ADVERTISEMENTTry a top-rated app for meditation and sleep
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It can be hard for someone to know if they are experiencing touch starvation. Most commonly, people will feel an overwhelming sensation of loneliness.
People may also experience:
- feelings of depression
- low satisfaction
- difficulty sleeping
Furthermore, people may exhibit behavior trying to simulate touch. This could include taking long baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, or cuddling a pet or cushion.
The feelings of loneliness and isolation that accompany touch starvation are likely to result in adverse psychological complications. For example, a lack of physical contact may increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
One 2017 study highlights that affectionate touch promotes psychological well-being. Therefore, it is possible that a lack of contact could put a person’s mental and emotional health at risk.
A 2020 study notes that touch can also reduce the feeling of loneliness. Therefore, a lack of physical contact may cause or worsen loneliness in some people.
Research also notes that those who report loneliness show dampened cognitive function and a higher chance of experiencing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERStay in the know. Get our free daily newsletter
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Some methods that people can try to overcome or reduce the sensation of touch starvation include the following:
- Using blankets: People can try to find comfort from wrapping themselves up in blankets. Alternatively, people can use weighted blankets. Using weighted blankets can mimic the sensation of receiving a hug, so this may help people feel a sense of peace and calm.
- Self-massage: People can try practicing self-massage to reduce touch starvation. For example, people can massage their neck to try to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may help reduce stress.
- Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR): This refers to the pleasant sensation that some people experience when listening to ASMR videos. These sounds activate the area of the brain that processes touch and may help people feel calm and relaxed.
- Recounting previous contact: Research suggests that touch plays a role in memory. Therefore, people may be able to recall a previous instance of physical contact and focus on their senses to relive the situation.
- Using body pillows: Using a body pillow may help some people feel more comfortable during sleep. This may also mimic the sensation of cuddling.
- Hugging: Research suggests that even hugging an inanimate object, such as a pillow, can help reduce stress. If possible, people can also hug their pet. In fact, research notes that animal companionship can reduce distress and loneliness.
- Communication: If possible, try to stay in regular contact with family, friends, and other loved ones. This could be through text messages, phone calls, or video calls. Research suggests a link between video calls and reduced feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
- Exercising: Physical activity can help improve cognitive function and well-being. It can also help reduce feelings of stress and depression and improve sleep.
When to seek help
If a person experiences negative mental health symptoms, they should try to seek assistance. Without treatment, mental health can significantly worsen and affect a person’s quality of life.
However, it is important for people to respect and maintain physical distancing measures and not risk their health or that of other people.
If a person is unable to get help in person, they could consider trying teletherapy. This is any form of remote therapy that uses technology to allow the therapist and their client to communicate. This can include holding therapy sessions over the phone, by video call, or through instant messaging.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Touch starvation refers to a sense of longing for physical contact. Humans are social creatures, and touch plays an important role in development and communication. For some people, the deprivation of human touch may result in negative mental health effects.
People can try different methods to mimic the sensation of human contact or try other means to promote positive mental health, such as exercising and regularly communicating with loved ones.
If a person is experiencing adverse mental health effects due to touch starvation, they should try to seek help.