Are you "skin hungry"? The benefits of touch and how we can incorporate them
This article has been edited for Natural Health Magazine.
In an article about Juan Mann one of the first pioneers of the “Free Hugs” movement Dr Kory Floyd used the term “Skin Hunger” to describe the feeling of touch deprivation and the human need for physical contact, which he found correlated with lower levels of happiness, higher reports of depression and stress, as well as lower social support. This reflected the more causal relationship between touch and development in research conducted in the early 1900s where it was noted that babies in orphanages who received less touch became sick and some never recovered.
It is notable that the word correlation in Floyd’s research is key because it might be that the reports of anxiety or depression were related to the lack of social contact – which will automatically result in less physical contact with other humans…and so skin hunger can only be related to negative emotions rather than being a clear cause.
In 2014 a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University found that hugs had an effect of boosting the immune system as they stimulate the production of endorphins and oxytocin…and countless repeated studies have shown the benefits to mood (because of the production of oxytocin and endorphins) that stroking a pet can bring.
Physical touch helps us feel well.
The Benefits of Touch
Although Aristotle considered touch to be the “lowliest” of all the senses as all it required was proximity and didn’t have the power to travel across time or space as words or images might. Yet, touch is one of the first instincts we use to explore the world and connect with it.
Saying that though – jump back to 1928 and psychologist John Watson suggested that touch was NOT to be encouraged between parent and child – how things have changed!! (…notably with growing research that touch-deprived children in orphanages demonstrated developmental delays socially, emotionally as well as cognitively.)
· Touch creates trust
· Touch is faster to calm someone than anything anyone can say
· Studies have shown wait staff who give diners a light pat on the shoulder receive higher tips
· Touch soothes with pregnant women feeling better with massages, and Alzheimer’s patients benefitting from touch therapy such as massage.
· Touch is used in stories eg: the kiss of a prince (as dated a trope as this may be), the
healing touch of hands or even tears, and of course the feeling of “electricity” when lovers touch for the first time. And the inability to express touch can be one of the most moving moments that we can connect with – the doomed romance in Brief Encounter for example cannot even end their affair with an embrace because the couple have been disturbed – instead Laura simply gets her shoulder squeezed by Alec…and that’s all the more heart breaking…and would Pocahontas have been so meaningful if the young princess hadn’t placed her head upon that of John Smith to protect him?
While touch is a universal language, different cultures speak it in different ways – in the UK we tend to be quite reserved compared to our European neighbours. And it is notable, however, that touch and hugging may also just be a reflection – or at best an extra benefit – of socialisation in general eg: it’s not necessarily the touch or hug alone, but that comes with being in company and the benefits to stimulation and enjoyment that brings.
So important can touch be that there are “professional cuddlers” in Japan (not just “free hugs signs” – but actual shops, and technology developments include a hugging vest and hugging chair!) this has been found to be especially beneficial for those deprived of physical contact.
And, research has shown that even SEEING a hug can have similar oxytocin effects – positive benefits.
So, how can we learn to include touch more in our lives?
There are simple ways to engage with touch and haptics – actively seek to:
- Hold hands with a loved one
- Engage in physical intimacy with a loved one (appropriately of course!)
- Hug others!!
- And, be aware, when you do touch someone, you are conveying a message (research finds that we can tell the difference – when blindfolded – between the TYPE of touch we are receiving etc: comfort, excitement, fear and so on) – so know how you are trying to make someone feel!
BUT it is important to note that, not everyone desires tactile contact, for some the sensation of touch can be off-putting. People report feelings of being overly warm or perhaps they are highly sensitive to smell in close contact – so be aware of your needs, as well as those of the people you are hoping to touch!! There are other ways of showing affection to them, and in these cases, for yourself if your skin feels hungry, try some of the following:
- Stroke a pet (or visit a petting zoo, or stroke other people’s dogs – but always ask first!)
- Book a massage
- Enjoy a warm shower and/or using creams and oils on your skin
- Hold something with a texture you enjoy (eg. a furry keyring)
- Practice mindfulness with a focus on touch (eg. when standing outside, focus on the sensation of the elements on your skin)
- Wear clothes that feel nice on your body
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt