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COVID-19 is Likely to Increase Cases of Touch Starvation

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Skin to skin contact is actually part of human development.

We are living in a time when nearly 1 in 3 American households consists of a solitary adult. Add that to the fact that we are being asked to keep our distance from others who are not part of our household, and this creates a set up for Touch Starvation. 

There is an entity widely recognized by the medical research community called ‘touch starvation’ also known as ‘skin hunger’. We have the greatest data regarding the detrimental impact of lack of touch in the developing child. Much of this information is the product of incidental findings of the major deficits found among children raised in orphanages. We know that for the developing child, touch is crucial to proper brain function and seems to even literally be essential to life. In a study conducted in the 1940s, children were fed adequately and bathed but deprived of additional touch in an effort to determine how this would impact their development. The study had to be stopped prematurely because before the study was over, half of them died seemingly in good health and without any physiological explanation. Reduced physical touch was the only thing that separated that group of infants from the control group who were otherwise maintained in similar circumstances. Furthermore, children who are touch deprived show evidence of poorer impulse control and impaired cognitive function and immune system function. These children were further observed to have evidence of social withdrawal, developmental delay and dysfunctional attachment styles. In early life, touch is associated with appropriate production of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, all of which are neurochemicals associated with emotional health. 

Touch is considered to be such a fundamental need, that in the Harry Harlow study where Rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and made to choose between food or the opportunity to be in contact with an artificial “mother” object made of cloth, the monkeys chose the cloth object. 

In adults, going without touch results in a predictable constellation of signs and symptoms which helps validate the idea of touch starvation being a true syndrome deserving of further exploration particularly considering recent lockdown requirements. Included among the observed deleterious psychological and physical effects are compromised immune function, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Increased levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress and inflammation, was detected in greater quantities in those who experienced minimal touch. There is evidence that lack of physical contact ironically impairs the ability to form healthy romantic connections due to a fear of commitment. Some theorize that masturbation is more about a need for touch itself than it is about lust or sexual pleasure.

Touch is associated with a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. In one study when employees were offered massages, their ability to complete math problems with speed and accuracy, was greatly improved afterward when compared to their pre-massage performance. 

Touch starvation will continue to be an issue moving forward as we continue to be careful when interacting with others. However, when possible, services such as manicures or massages that involve touch can be helpful to those who feel themselves to be experiencing skin hunger. A hug lasting at least 20 seconds is found to result in a surge in oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Interactions with pets have been found to have many of the benefits associated with human touch. 

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