Updated: Feb 4
Touch deprivation, or skin hunger as it’s sometimes known, is a condition that arises when we have little or no physical contact with others. This condition appears to be more prevalent in western countries, as we tend to engage in friendly touch less often than in other parts of the world. The rise in use of technology and mobile devices, as well as fears around harassment are some of the reasons attributed to this growing problem. Yet touch is essential for our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.
A clear example which shows how important touch is, can be found in The Power of Touch by Phyllis K. Davis. In her book, Davis talks about babies that were taken away from their parents by the German emperor Frederick II, “He gave them to nurses who were forbidden to touch or talk with them. The experiment was to discover what language children would speak if raised without ever hearing anyone speaking. No language was learned. Every baby died before they could talk. The year was 1248.”
So how can you tell whether you’re suffering from touch deprivation? Below are seven signs which may indicate that you’re suffering from skin hunger.
1. Aggressive behaviour
The founder of the Touch Research Institute (TRI), Tiffany Field, conducted a study which looked at French and American adolescents. The study showed that American adolescents spent less time touching and hugging their peers than their French counterparts, and instead displayed more self-touch and more aggressive verbal and physical behaviour. Interestingly when violent adolescents were provided with massage therapy, their empathy increased and the levels of violent behaviour went down. While this may be attributed to a boost in serotonin levels, it still shows how powerful touch can be.
2. Body image issues
Touch plays a role in the formation of body image. One study of women with anorexia and bulimia showed a link between body image issues and greater touch deprivation in their childhood as well as in their current life. In contrast, another impact of touch deprivation is overeating, which may be a way of trying to fill an inner void that has come about through a lack of affection.
3. High stress levels
When the touch receptors beneath our skin are stimulated, it can help reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure, which therefore reduces stress. Conversely, when we are experiencing stress and lack touch, we may struggle to unwind. This is one of the many reasons why alternative holistic therapies, such as cuddle therapy are growing in popularity across the world, as people seek to find ways to address their skin hunger and keep stress in check.
We’ve written a blog post about how touch can be used to tackle loneliness, which you can read here. However common signs that you may be experiencing loneliness as a result of touch deprivation can include:
· Prolonged hot showers and baths (the warmth of which could be acting as a substitute for the warmth from another person)
· Wrapping up in blankets
· Clinging to pillows and even our pets
Touch deprivation can actually create a self-reinforcing cycle where we feel alienated from others and therefore begin to shy away from social contact. This could therefore lead to:
5. Mental health issues such as depression
Depression, low mood, anxiety and being withdrawn can be signs of skin hunger. In addition, those who are touch deprived may be more likely to have alexithymia, which is a condition that inhibits people from expressing and interpreting their emotions (that’s not to suggest that skin hunger causes this condition). Yet when these individuals receive healing touch, their depression levels have been shown to go down.
6. Sexual dysfunction
High levels of anxiousness may increase tension within the body, which can lead to sexual dysfunction.
7. Fear of attachment and unsatisfying relationships
Individuals suffering from touch deprivation may feel fearful towards becoming attached, and could be less likely to form secure attachments with other people. This could be down to the fact that these individuals are self-preoccupied, can suffer from excessive shyness and are anxious about reaching out and becoming involved in long-term intimacy. It’s therefore no surprise that “I need cuddles”, “I want a cuddle buddy” and “professional hugging service” are commonly googled phrases.
To learn more about touch deprivation, watch Rebekka’s inspiring TEDx talk.