In a previous article, we presented a 2019 report from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration that discussed the impact of loneliness on health. As many of us may be experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic, being cut off from friends and loved ones can be impactful even if we are not lonely, but find ourselves more alone than we care to be.
Social Distancing and Working Remotely
Social distancing, now embedded in popular consciousness, has brought its own set of challenges as we adjust to working remotely, altering our habits as consumers, and enduring being away from family and friends indefinitely. This isolation, though helpful in mitigating the physical spread of the virus, has brought its own set of challenges, among them pervasive feelings of anxiety and loneliness. This is compounding what many Americans were feeling prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The same 2019 U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration report addressed this dynamic and stated: “Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.” With the necessity of having to change our social interactions and relationships, as lockdowns and social distancing protocols continue through many parts of the country, the pre-existing stress of loneliness or the feeling of aloneness, is often amplified as we spend further time apart from loved ones and friends.
This can lead to the emergence of a phenomenon known as “skin hunger”, born of the desire for healthy, consensual physical contact with a partner, friend, or family member. In a Psychology Today blogpost titled, “What Lack of Affection Can Do to You”, Kory Floyd, PhD., highlights the following statistics regarding “skin hunger”:
Three out of every four adults agree with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger.”
More Americans live alone than ever before.
One in four Americans reports not having a single person to talk to about important issues.
Loneliness among American adults has increased by 16 percent in the last decade.
Furthermore, Floyd writes:
“Just as lack of food, water, and rest have their detrimental effects, so too does the lack of affection. In a recent study of 509 adults, I examined the construct of skin hunger—and the social, relational, and health deficits with which it is associated. The results were consistent and striking. People with high levels of skin hunger are disadvantaged in multiple ways, compared to those with moderate or low levels.”
People with higher levels of skin hunger, according to the studies, were more likely to:
Be less happy.
Be more lonely.
Experience stress, depression, and anxiety disorders.
Have secondary immune disorders.
Develop alexithymia, a condition that hampers the ability to express and interpret emotion.
“These findings don’t establish that skin hunger causes all of these negative conditions, only that people who feel highly affection-deprived are more likely than others to experience them. If you’re one of those people, though, these findings probably come as no surprise. Affectionate contact is so necessary for a healthy life that we suffer when we don’t get enough.”
Studies have shown that physical touch, whether of a sexual nature or not, provides a myriad of health benefits including reduction of the stress hormone cortisol and improved emotional health. Though this is much less of an issue for spouses, cohabitating couples, and roommates, the question remains of how single people and couples who are separated during lockdown can fulfill their touch hunger and alleviate depression and anxiety. Thankfully, there are some lifestyle choices that can help.
Engaging in self-affection, such as self-massage or skin touch. Research has shown that self-touch has many of the same physical and emotional benefits as interpersonal contact.
Pet ownership, along with the sense of companionship it can provide, can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Caring for plants has shown to reduce loneliness and generate a positive mindset.
Our human need for interpersonal connection, affection and human touch has been demonstrated in numerous research studies and in reports of how healing touch and affection can alter vital signs and increase recovery. Several years ago, a surgeon, who was featured in People magazine, showed statistical date he gathered on how, during surgery, having a patient’s hand being held during surgery improved their vital signs and recovery from anesthesia both pre and post-op.
Human Touch is a Powerful Medicine
A wonderful article called “Florence Nightingale, Healing Touch and the Year of the Nurse”, by Energy Magazine, the official publication of the Healing Touch Program, is well worth reading to explore this further.