The COVID-19 pandemic has meant increased isolation for a lot of people. Even with lockdowns no longer as stringent as they were in March, many people are still working from home, minimizing their social outings, and avoiding intimate contact with people they don't live with. The truth is, hand-holding, hugging, or kissing outside of your pod will probably feel risky until there's a coronavirus vaccine. And for people who are super strict about avoiding that risk, that lack of contact can have a serious psychological impact, causing something called touch starvation.
"Touch starvation is the lack of touch between you and another living being," therapist Heidi McBain L.M.F.T. tells Bustle. Skin-on-skin contact is one of our basic needs, alongside sleep and food, and without it, Bain says, our health and wellbeing can suffer. "It has definitely been an issue as of late because of the global pandemic and the need to physically distance from others."
Psychotherapist Alisa Ruby Bash, Psy.D., L.M.F.T., tells Bustle that contact with peoples's bodies, whether it's the hug of a friend or interactions with hairdressers, massage therapists, or nail techs, can be a key part of our self-care — and when we're deprived of it, we experience higher levels of stress. "This has had devastating impacts on the mental health of most of the population," she says, pointing to the fact that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) have found higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts across the U.S. since the pandemic began. "Even one long genuine platonic hug from someone we trust may be enough to help our mental and physical health."
Why Touch Is So Important For Mental Health
Research around the phenomenon shows how integral skin-to-skin communication is for our mental and physical health. "When people are hugged, or receive a loving back rub before a test or challenge, they do better," Bash says. Researchers think soothing contact raises your levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps you relax and feel loved.
This may be why therapeutic massage or hand-holding has been found to be helpful for patients with cancer, breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, people with anorexia, the elderly, pregnant women, and babies. A study published in PLoS One in 2018 also found that a simple hug could boost mood and make people feel better about conflicts. It's even been linked to a stronger immune system by a study in Psychological Science in 2014. If you're in pain, stressed, or angry, physical contact with other people might help.
On the flip side, being touch-starved can lead to anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and sadness. Intimacy is crucial to brain development in small children, Bash says, and grown-ups can feel its absence keenly too. "If you currently live with others and you are feeling emotionally connected to them, touch starvation may not be an issue for you, even with COVID-19," McBain says. "However, if you live alone, you may be feeling very touch-starved and disconnected from others."
If you're touch starved, not only will you feel more stressed than usual, but you might even feel a craving to touch someone else, a sensation known as "skin hunger." You may also realize you feel a lift in your mood when you have skin-to-skin contact with another person, even if it's just a casual hand-brush.
How To Cope With Touch Starvation
Touch starvation can be remedied by contact, but if that's not an option — and as the pandemic continues, it might not be for a while — there are other ways to deal. People who've been isolated during the pandemic, Bash says, can research services such as massage, hair, and facials in their area, to see if pandemic regulations might allow them some therapeutic touch. Experts believe that wearing a mask while doing these activities is fine, provided your area has a very low COVID rate, but if you're extra worried, you should make sure the spa has adequate hygiene precautions, and space out appointments by two weeks to ensure you're isolated if you develop any symptoms. "Self-massage and touching are important as well," she says. McBain recommends going for a walk and connecting with nature, getting in contact with people virtually, and remembering times when you felt comfortable and safe.
Bash also says you shouldn't try to push away or suppress your need for touch. "Many benefits we need really do come from touching and being touched by others," she says. It's not something to be ashamed of. If you're really struggling, McBain says, think about talking to somebody. "Therapy may be a great place to discuss your feelings surrounding touch starvation and feeling emotionally disconnected from others," she says.
"Although we all must consider safety first, wear our masks when necessary, and follow social distancing guidelines, we also need to find a balance that makes sense and helps us feel a sense of peace and wellbeing," Bash says. A hug may be off the table, but hand-holding outdoors after some thorough disinfecting could be just what you need.
Alisa Ruby Bash PsyD LMFT
Heidi McBain LMFT
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Murphy, M., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Cohen, S. (2018). Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. PloS one, 13(10), e0203522. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203522
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