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Tactile deprivation or "skin hunger" is the scientific need for human physical contact. While sex can be an aspect of satisfying "skin hunger", "skin hunger" itself is not sex - it can be alleviated by anything from a hug, a handshake, a haircut to a light touch on the shoulder, from relative strangers or those closest to you.
In daily life, most of us may experience more small interactions with our skin until it's gone and we don't even realize how important it is, which can lead to very real and deep emotional and physical consequences.
In the case of a public health crisis, the inability to connect can quickly become the common affliction of our lives, with few universally acknowledging its existence or offering real solutions. It is now more important than ever that we understand the fundamentals of skin contact and explore how to deal with the lack of skin contact as part of our broader self-care efforts.
Virtual hugging has a long way to go.
Although video chatting via Zoom or FaceTime doesn't involve physical contact, being able to talk to your loved one and see them can release many of the same stress-relieving hormones as skin-to-skin contact, and keep you psychologically close.
It's important to use video as much as possible -- yes, including on the work phone, where you may or may not wear the T-shirt you slept in (we don't judge). Communication scientists have found that richness of communication technology is important -- platforms with nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and eyes further promote physical benefits and feelings of connection.
Be vulnerable and share it openly with your loved ones, even if it feels awkward at first. Practice active listening, nodding, and making eye contact with verbal affirmations such as "Uh-huh" and "I see."
Psychology Today recommends other ways to use technology to avoid loneliness, including watching a TV show or movie together, having a virtual date night together, learning something new together, or collaborating with someone on a digital project.
Embrace soft, warm (or furry) materials.
American psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a controversial experiment with young monkeys. He separated the young monkeys from their biological mothers and gave them a choice of two inanimate alternatives;One is made of wire and the other is made of cloth. Even with the wire surrogate holding the bottle, the baby monkey overwhelmingly chose the cloth mother.
While this ethically challenged experiment talks more about maternal love than touch, it is clear that "the comfort of touch has an overwhelming importance in the development of emotional responses". Emotional reactions to other people, or emotional reactions to ourselves.
Being wrapped in a soft blanket and soaking in a hot bath is already comforting, touch or not. Those of us who have never thrown away our childhood stuffed animals should give them an extra squeeze, even if your childhood is far away.
If you have pets (especially furry ones), let them snuggle up to you and invade your space. While animals can't exactly mimic human contact, their soft, warm coats have their own healing properties, just like their usual companions.
Explore the method
Self-touch - rubbing, scratching, caressing or grooming any part of the body. We do it many times a day, mostly subconsciously, either out of necessity (itchy earlobes) or out of discomfort or anxiety (rubbing the back of the neck). It can also be emotional and conscious, caressing sexy parts of your body or masturbating.
Consciously touching yourself in a way that feels good may not have the same effect as touching someone else (our brains can tell the difference). Close enough, especially when deprived.
Self-massaging, using a comfortable source of heat and cold (such as a heat pad or cooling mask), and gently applying the nail to the skin can all have great results. Gentle introspective physical activities like yoga can also stimulate the body's tactile baroreceptors, especially when combined with self-massage, where you rub your limbs and muscles while paying close attention to your breathing.
Remind yourself it's not forever.
For a season of life in particular, without a definite end date, it's easy to think it will last forever, or at least feel like it. At this point, it's worth repeating a mantra to yourself: It's not forever. I can bring the people I love close to me again. Life will go back to normal. It's not forever.
It can be very difficult to stay away from people for long periods of time, and the consequences can creep up on you without you noticing. Dealing with skin hunger is just that. Still, it's worth seeking out simulations of physical contact, finding minimal comfort within the confines of everyday life.
It is important to take care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you find that stress and anxiety are worsening and impairing your ability to work, schedule a time to speak remotely with a mental health professional. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers free and paid resource centers for those struggling during this time.