Touch deprivation, or "skin hunger", is a scientifically-backed need for physical human contact. While sex can be one aspect of satisfying skin hunger, skin hunger itself isn't sexual - it can be relieved by anything from a hug to a handshake to a haircut to a brief touch on the shoulder, from relative strangers or those closest to us.
Most of us probably experience more small interactions with skin contact in our regular day-to-day lives, without even realizing how vital it is until it's gone, which can lead to very real and very profound emotional and physical consequences.
This is where, in the case of a public health crisis, not being able to touch each other may quickly become a prevalent pain our lives, with little widespread acknowledgment of its existence or offering of real solutions. It's more important than ever that we understand the fundamentality of skin-to-skin contact and explore ways to cope with its absence, as part of our broader self-care efforts.
Virtual hugs go a long way.
Even though a video chat over Zoom or a quick FaceTime session involves no physical touch, being able to speak with and see your loved ones can release many of the same stress-relieving hormones that skin contact does, maintaining psychological closeness.
The important thing is that you use video when possible - yes that includes during work calls, where you may or may not be wearing the same t-shirt you slept in (we don't judge). Communication scientists have found that the richness of your communication technology matters - platforms with nonverbal cues like facial expressions and eye gaze drive further physiological benefits and feelings of interpersonal connection.
Be vulnerable and share openly with your loved ones, even if it feels a bit awkward over video at first, and practice active listening through eye contact, nodding your head, and giving verbal affirmations like "mm-hmm" and "I see".
Psychology Today recommends other ways to use technology to stave off feelings of isolation, including watch TV shows or movies together, having a virtual date night, learning something new together, or collaborating with someone on a digital project.
Embrace soft, warm (or furry) materials.
American psychologist, Harry Harlow, ran controversial experiments with baby monkeys, where he separated them from their birth mothers and gave them two options for inanimate surrogates; one made of wire and one made of cloth. Even when the wire surrogate held the bottle of milk, the baby monkeys overwhelmingly chose the cloth "mother".
While the ethically-questionable experiment had more to say about maternal affection than touch, it's clear that "contact comfort is of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response". Affectional response with others, or in this case, with yourself.
Wrapping up in a soft blanket and dipping into a hot bath are already comforting sensations, touch-deprived or not. Those of us who never got rid of our childhood stuffed animals should give them some extra squeezes, even if your childhood is far, far behind you.
If you have a pet (specifically a furry one), let them cuddle up to you and invade your space. While animals can't emulate human contact exactly, their soft, warm fur has its own healing properties, as does their general companionship.
Self-touch - rubbing, scratching, caressing, or grooming any part of your body is something we all do many times a day, mostly subconsciously, either out of necessity (an itchy earlobe) or out of discomfort or anxiety (rubbing the back of the neck). It can also be sensual and conscious, caressing an erogenous part of your body or masturbating.
Being deliberate about touching yourself in ways that feel good may not have the same effect as contact with another human (our brains can tell the difference), it comes close enough, especially in times of deprivation.
Self-massage, applications of comforting heat or cold sources (think, a hot pad or cooling face mask), and gently running your nails across your skin will go a long way. Gentle, introspective physical activity like yoga also stimulates pressure receptors of human touch, especially when integrated with self-massage, rubbing your limbs and muscles, while paying close attention to your breath.
Remind yourself that it's not forever.
Especially if a season of life doesn't have a clear end-date it's easy to assume it will last forever or at least feel like forever. This is when there's value in giving yourself a mantra: this is not forever. I will be able to hold the people that I love close to me again. Life will return to normal. This is not forever.
Going without human touch for an extended amount of time is really hard, and the consequences can sneak up on you while you're not looking. Coping with skin hunger is just that - coping. Still, it's still incredibly worth it to seek out emulations of physical touch, finding the smallest comforts within the limits of your day-to-day life.
Taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak is of utmost importance. If you find that stress and anxiety are worsening and impairs your ability to function, set up a time to talk with a mental health professional remotely. The CDC has also provided a hub of resources, both free and paid, for those struggling during this time.