How Lack of Physical Touch Is Starving Our Bodies — And Minds

Young and old hands point together

A lack of touch has the capacity to undermine one’s mental health

Michael*, 27, hasn’t lived with another person since March 2020. The last time he hugged someone was a close friend, outdoors, in the summer. He hasn’t been to the hairdresser since before the pandemic. When he sees couples walking in the park, he feels a pang of jealousy. 

“I never realized how much I enjoyed and relied on being able to hug my friends until I was able to do so,” he said. “Being alone during this time of national tragedy has only amplified my desire to hold someone, at exactly the moment when that’s one of the last things I can do.” 

Michael is one of millions across the globe right now suffering from a phenomenon called touch deprivation. But what is the importance of touch in the first place? And does touch have to equate to human to human contact? We connected with Jesse Kahn, a director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City. He answers all of our burning questions about the subject.

Katie Couric Media: Why is touch so important for humans?

Jesse Kahn: People are ‘wired’ for touch. Physical touch does things for us like: release oxytocin, reduce stress and calm our nervous system, making it an important, core physical and emotional need. And it’s not just humans! The need for physical touch is natural and you can see it reflected in other animals like chimps, whose social practice of grooming one another are sometimes used to calm tempers and soothe conflicts. 

It also helps meet another core human need: connection. Physical touch helps improve intimacy between people, whether it’s through holding hands, cuddling on the couch, giving someone a hug, or having sex. It’s social bonding. It literally brings us closer together. 

And of course, physical touch can be used to communicate nonverbally. We don’t always have the words to express what we’re feeling, and we know that verbal communication is really only a small portion of the way we communicate with one another. You can express compassion, support, desire or playfulness, etc. through touch! 

How do our needs for touch change throughout life?

When we are young, our need for touch is survival-based. When we’re born, skin-to-skin contact does crucial things for us like regulating temperature, heart rate, breathing, etc. In infancy, physical contact with our caregiver establishes that important bond between us and them, and also does things like improving sleep for the baby, make them feel more comfortable in their environment, reduce fussiness, and can even improve digestion. 

Social touch continues to be a crucial factor in brain development throughout childhood. As we enter adolescence we continue to reap the benefits of physical touch, but touch can then be used as part of self sexual exploration, connecting individuals to their own sexuality, as well as obviously presenting opportunities to bond with others in a sexual, erotic or romantic context. 

What are the symptoms of touch starvation? 

It really is going to feel different for everyone. Sometimes we know right away I need to be touched, other times it shows up through our existing depression symptoms. 

The big one is loneliness. You might not realize you’re craving physical touch from others, but if you find yourself feeling frequently lonely and longing for the close company of others, then there is a good chance your need for touch isn’t being met. This is obviously very common right now, since so many of us are physically isolated due to the pandemic. 

Other symptoms would be things like increased symptoms of depression or anxiety, higher stress than usual, feelings of dissatisfaction in your relationships, or difficulty sleeping. Or if you find yourself seeking out things that stimulate your sense of touch  — heated blankets, fuzzy clothes or blankets, holding a pet, taking long showers to feel the hot water, etc. — this could be your unmet need for touch trying to make do with what you have. 

How should we prioritize touch more going forward? 

It’s hard to imagine in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic! For some, it’s going to feel strange for a while when we’re even “allowed” to be near one another again — another barrier to meeting that need. But we’ve spent so long intentionally distancing ourselves from each other, that we may have to be just as intentional about adding that closeness back in.

The pandemic has really opened people’s eyes to how much we do need to be around one other. We want to see and hug our friends and loved ones again as soon as possible!

If we can see physical affection as commonplace within all of the relationships in our lives — not just romantic ones — we would see that need met much more across the board. While some people are openly physically affectionate with their friends and not just their romantic and sexual partners, there is this idea that romantic relationships should be the most intimate and closest relationships in your life, which a lot of people then translate to physical touch. 

It’s an easy way to make a distinction between a friendship and a romantic relationship, but it doesn’t actually serve either type of relationship to compartmentalize ways we express affection like that. It can withhold a wonderful way to bond and be intimate with our friends, and at the same time puts a lot of pressure on romantic relationships — there’s no way one person can meet every need you have for physical intimacy. 

How can people cope right now without getting enough touch?

It’s hard to meet that need for touch that we have right now while we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s not impossible.

If you live with someone or have a pod, meeting that need is a little easier. You can get hugs, cuddles, massages, high fives, shoulder rubs, etc. from someone who is already safely in your space.

If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re totally out of options. You can address that need by petting or cuddling a pet. You can add things that stimulate your sense of touch to your home (fuzzy blankets and pillows, weighted blankets, heated blankets, etc). 

You can also incorporate some somatic exercises into your life to help. This would be things like hugging yourself, massaging yourself, providing yourself with other forms of touch (like a feather or the petal of a flower), touching something textured, holding yourself (via hugging your knees to your chest, crossing your arms tightly, etc.) or other mindfulness or visualization practices that focus on touch. 

*Michael’s real name isn’t disclosed for privacy purposes. 

Written and reported by Amanda Svachula.