Feeling a need for human touch is a very real experience. And as it turns out, there are some things that actually happen to your body if you don't experience human touch for a few days. If you've ever really felt the need for a good hug, then there's a reason for that.
From a neuroscientific standpoint, the brain processes human touch differently than other types of touch. For instance, when a person picks up an apple or other object, the brain collects info about its texture, temperature, and location, as Lindsey Ross, M.D. explains. The sense of touch is on something of a fact-finding mission. "However when the human body touches another person, information travels through the peripheral nerves to the brain and via the posterior pituitary, a small organ in the center of the brain, a hormone called oxytocin is released —the love hormone," says Dr. Ross. Oxytocin helps a person with social recognition and partner bonding, so human touch is a much richer expereince, as Dr. Ross further explains.
On a more emotional level, it isn't uncommon to experience something known as skin hunger. A longing for human touch, skin hunger indicates a deep-seated need for tactical experiences with other people, as explained in Psychology Today. It isn't necessarily related to sexual needs, either. Sometimes you legit just need a hug.
But what happens if you happen to be in a situation where close touch isn't easily available? There are other activities you can try to get a similar benefit. "When you don’t experience human touch for a few days your body may experience a drop in oxytocin," says Adina Mahalli (MSW), a certified mental health professional who writes on behalf of Maple Holistics. "The good news is that you can practice self-soothing behaviors to reduce stress and comfort yourself. Taking a warm bath, using a soft blanket and anything else that appeals to your senses can provide mild relief from this drop in oxytocin levels." If you're really struggling with this or other emotional needs, then don't hesitate to reach out to a counselor for help.
1. Increases Symptoms Of Depression
Going without touch may increase some symptoms associated with depression. "Without human touch, we can start to feel isolated, disconnected and alone," says professional counselor Bill Prasad. "Prolonged periods without human touch can exacerbate existing symptoms of depression." (It may be related to that drop in oxytocin mentioned by Dr. Ross.) If you're struggling with depression for any reason, reach out to a counselor for help.
2. Prompts Comfort-Seeking Behaviors
This isn't a bad thing if your idea of comfort means taking a long bubble bath or watching movies while snuggled on the couch. But for other people, the absence of touch may make problematic behaviors more attractive. "Suffering from prolonged absence of human touch can spark us to seek comfort in other, less healthy ways," says Prasad. "This could come in the form of overeating, abusing alcohol or other drugs and acting out sexually. Sometimes, people will overextend themselves sexually because they are hungry for some type of skin to skin connection." If you're concerned about potentially unhealthy comfort-seeking behaviors, then this is something that can be worked out in therapy.
3. Weakens Immune System
Although it's healthy for all people to experience human touch, babies in particular appear to need frequent touch for developmental purposes. "The best examples of this come from Romanian orphanages after Ceaușescu's fall, when there just weren't enough people around to take care of babies," said neurobiologist David Linden in Vox. "They were barely touched during the day." Not surprisingly, many of these children grew up to face emotional problems. But there appeared to be a physical side to the lack of touch as well. "They had weakened immune systems, and skin ailments," said Linden. Although the exact reason touch is so important is not yet totally understood, it looks like there's a very real need for it, especially during a person's youngest years. Really, the things that happen when you hold a baby are pretty sweet and kind of magical, as explained in Romper. So cuddle that newborn as much as you like, because people need human touch from day one.