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What Are Touch Deprivation & Skin Hunger?

Updated on August 5, 2019
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

Touch deprivation is exactly what it sounds like: a person is deprived of being touched. As human beings, we need physical contact with other living things. Hugs, holding hands, tickling, play wrestling, a pat on the shoulder, a high five, sex, petting a dog or cat and all of the ways that we physically interact with other living things are actually very important for our well-being.

To illustrate how important it is, consider the sometimes astounding rate of infant mortality in orphanages. Researchers have found that in group settings where there is simply not enough time or staff to give children the attention they need, babies who are only being given basic care fail to thrive. Some even die as a result of not being given the interaction that we need as living things, even though they are being fed and basically cared for correctly. The children that do survive are often physically and emotionally stunted; they may be much smaller than others their age and cognitively delayed. Their behavior is often similar to children with autism: they avoid eye contact, they don't talk, they don't smile at others. As you may know, there can be many other developmental and behavioral problems reported in children that were raised in orphanages and situations where they are neglected in this way.

An experiment with infant rhesus monkeys in the 1950s showed that when two different "mothers" were constructed for them out of wire, the babies spent their time with the "mother" that was warm and cuddly, even though the bare wire "mother" gave food and the cuddly "mother" gave no food. The experiment further showed that when some babies were given only a cuddly "mother" and some were only given a wire "mother," the ones with the wire "mother" seemed to lack the ability to soothe themselves and had heightened, even hysterical reactions to fear for much longer. While many (including the author) abhor this type of experimentation and believe it to be horribly even despicably cruel, it clearly demonstrates what damage can be done to a brain if there is no loving touch.

Loving touch is not just essential for proper development in babies. It is calming and essential for wellness in all human beings. It stimulates the vagus nerve and causes it to slow down your nervous system. It lowers your heart rate, your blood pressure, calms down cortisol production, releases serotonin and dopamine... This is true for adults as well. Humans of all ages need loving touch in their lives. When these things do not occur, there can be illness such as depression, acquired auto-immune disease and problems, as well as all of the other things we know to occur with high stress levels. People with high levels of touch deprivation and skin hunger can also experience social dissatisfaction, more mood and anxiety disorders, have trouble expressing and recognizing emotions and have trouble forming secure attachments with other people in their lives.

Touch is more than just physical, though. It's emotional. Most of our communication as people is non-verbal, and touch is the first language we learn as babies. It communicates emotion better than even gestures or words and leaves a lasting impression on people. Studies have found that students who received a touch on the back or the arm from a teacher were twice as likely to volunteer in class compared to those who did not. A massage from a loved one has been showed to ease pain and help depression. During a study at the University of Indiana, blindfolded participants were able to discern the emotions conveyed through touch from a stranger, with up to 70% accuracy - without even being able to see them.

It is no wonder then, that those in toxic or narcissistic relationships suffer from touch deprivation so terribly. When there is no loving touch, there is a lack of communication, support and so much more on a fundamental, basic level. It is not uncommon for people in these kinds of relationships to realize they have gone weeks or even months without so much as a hug or touch of the hand. This can cause a huge amount of stress and depression in people, even though they may not realize why. They only know they feel disconnected, lonely, angry and hurt. When this is combined with trauma and abuse, the negative impact is possibly incalculable.

Touch deprivation is also known as skin hunger because hunger is a need. You don't get hungry because you want food. You get hungry because you need food. Skin hunger literally means your skin is hungry. It needs contact. If you find yourself suffering from touch deprivation, more touch is the cure. If you cannot get the affection you need from your significant other or family member, you can always turn to friends. You can get a massage. Animals are wonderful. Petting and cuddling receptive, friendly animals is good for you and for them. Ask people for hugs if you need them. You might find that many others need a hug, too.


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