Skin hunger is not a new phenomenon, but as humans become more “connected” through technology, the lack of physical touch might be making us lonely.
The term skin hunger is a psychological one that can also be called “touch hunger.” It is the physiological need that humans have for human touch and interaction. Not just a sexual need, although often associated with sex, people have a human propensity to need to touch and be touched.
There was a famous psychological study conducted decades ago where they had two groups of baby monkeys. One was left in a room with a metal feeding apparatus, and one group was left with a feeding dish covered in cloth. What they found shouldn’t shock anyone; primates are wired to need the touch and warmth of others through physical contact.
Anyone who has ever had a child knows that feeling of your arms being empty when they are far away. Or, when you break up with someone, missing that hug or being held by the person who used to hold you. The skin hunger phenomenon is a basic need that we all have for health and well-being. A lack of affection can cause not only psychological deficits, but it can also lead to poor health outcomes.
As the world becomes more automated, the problem of skin hunger continues to grow. Connecting on Facebook isn’t the same as meeting someone for lunch and giving them a hug.
Just like regular hunger, when you are skin hungry, you act in various ways to get your hunger fed. Just as we need food to survive, our bodies need physical touch. The detrimental effects of skin hunger are real. It can result in feeling affection-deprived, depression, loneliness, stress, and poorer health consequences over time.
It can also lead to anxiety disorders, immune deficiency, and mood disorders of various types. Severe skin hunger, especially when experienced early on in development can lead to a condition called alexithymia, which is the inability to interpret or express emotion appropriately. It can also lead to an avoidant attachment style or being fearful in social interactions. [Read: 20 types of physical touches and what each one means]
We all desire different levels of affection from those around us. Some people are very touchy-feely, while one hug for others is enough for a week. The problem is that, unless you are getting your needs for skin hunger met, you might be living a life that has you feel lonely and sad.
So, what is it about touch that people have a hunger for?
When you are touched by another human being, it isn’t just about the sensation of the touch itself. There are studies that indicate that there are a range of various emotions that come with a touch that elicits physiological responses in the body.
A mere hug can lower your level of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Other studies in France concluded that teens who engaged in human touch more often showed fewer signs of overall aggression than their cohorts.
Touching each other is not just about the health of the individual, it is something that can be at the heart of world peace as well as discord. Okay, so it might sound like I am being dramatic. But, it just might be the key.
The Touch Research Institute *yes, there really is a place* believes that at the heart of so much aggression in our schools, and in our society, are recently implemented “no touch” policies in our schools and learning centers due to sexual abuse.
Skin hunger might be the key to overcoming depression and loneliness
Often skin hunger is misdiagnosed or completely missed by not only the individual, but those in their life, and even clinicians. What can appear to be depression may be something as simple as not having enough touching or human interaction.
When people have skin hunger, they have certain telltale signs that can be misdiagnosed. Symptoms of skin hunger are being withdrawn, voice intonation that is often flat and unenthusiastic, and clinical depression.
When people who are skin hungry are massaged in clinical settings, their depression goes down, and their vagal brain activity increases. It isn’t even about being touched by people you know and love; it might just be the need for the touch of another human being for people to lessen their loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
Western society, especially the elderly, appears to fare worse as a result of skin hunger
One population that shows the biggest signs of skin hunger are the elderly. Their loneliness, in the form of skin hunger, can amount to significant chronic mental health outcomes. It isn’t just that this age cohort is significantly under-engaged, it is that years of skin hunger can begin to mount.
People who experience skin hunger at 50 or older, are twice as likely to die from loneliness, literally, than those who are touched and have significant human relationships. The older a person becomes, the more susceptible they are to succumb to loneliness, depression, and physical consequences from lack of touch. [Read: How to cheer someone up – 18 ways to make them feel awesome again]
Western society fares worse than most other around the globe when it comes to skin hunger. When surveyed, many in Western societies felt like they had fewer people they could confide in, and that they could only relate to about ten to twenty percent of the people they knew. Some scientists blame it on the innovation of technology and how it has replaced human interaction.
If you think about it, the more connected we become globally through the internet, the more lonely and hostile we have become. There is no substitute for human feel and touch. You can’t talk your way out of the need for skin sensation through emails or text messages. In general, we spend more time alone and not being touched than ever before in history.
How to overcome your skin hunger… a hug is really that powerful
So, what do we do about skin hunger? The only way to overcome skin hunger is to reach out to others around you. A hug might feel uncomfortable because it is not engaged in very often, but that isn’t because we don’t need it. Even the most standoffish among us is in need of some human touch and interaction.
A hug, brushing up against someone, or even just touching someone, can make all the difference in your world.
If you are feeling lonely and depressed, of course, seeking a medical evaluation is very important. But, in addition to counseling, you might just want to try a hug from people around you to relieve your skin hunger.
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