Touch starvation occurs when you go without skin-to-skin contact for long periods. Over time, it can impact your mental health and well-being.

Being touch starved — aka touch deprived or skin hungry — can happen when you have had little to no touch from other living things.

As humans, we’re wired to crave touch. On the day of our birth, we’re cuddled, rubbed, and snuggled by others — from parents to the medical staff. Physical touch can help ease feelings of sadness and pain.

When we’re without touch, it can affect our mental health and physical well-being.

Learning more about touch starvation and its effects can help you know how to cope with it.

Physical contact is important to our mental and physical well-being.

Research from 2015 shows that touch promotes effective communication and maintains relationships. It activates areas of the brain that influence reactions, physiological responses, and thought processes.

Physical contact also encourages learning and decision-making.

Touch can also be calming and reassuring to people in distress, according to a 2017 study. Embracing and patting an upset person is soothing, and a 2015 study suggests that it may even help fight infections.

A 2015 review found that lack of stimulation causes your body to produce less oxytocin than it needs. Oxytocin sends sensations to the brain that triggers happiness and positivity.

Without the necessary oxytocin, you’ll experience more stress and a decreased sense of well-being.

Touch can also help with loneliness. According to a 2017 study, touch can reduce feelings of isolation.

Touch starvation can happen anytime a person doesn’t get enough physical contact. It’s often seen in children in orphanages and older adults in hospitals.

But the COVID-19 pandemic made the issue more widespread, with social distancing affecting those missing their loved ones.

We missed out on all types of touching from friends and loved ones during the pandemic. No one was there to hold our hands when we were scared or scratch our backs when we had an itch.

In the workplace, we missed out on handshakes and pats on the back for a job well done.

Without these simple gestures, we can lack the bonding and social interaction experience required for relationship building.

It’s sometimes hard to identify whether you’re touch starved, but there are symptoms to watch for. Some symptoms you may experience are:

Additionally, you may try to stimulate touch by:

  • taking long showers or baths
  • wrapping yourself in blankets even when you’re not cold
  • cuddling a cushion or pillow
  • clinging to your pet

Touch starvation can affect you emotionally in several ways, according to a 2016 review.

Stress, anxiety, and depression

According to experts, touch starvation may cause feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. These effects can trigger further issues.

Your body releases cortisol to overcome stress, suppressing the digestive and immune system and increasing your:

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • respiration
  • muscle tension

These issues can affect your sleep quality and increase your chance of infections. It also worsens conditions such as:

Feelings of emptiness and loneliness

Research from 2019 explains that you receive a sense of comfort, security, and satisfaction from physical contact.

You bond with others from human touch and can experience distress without it. Lack of physical touch can lead to feelings of emptiness and loneliness.

A 2015 study discusses how feelings of loneliness can weaken cognitive functions such as memory and concentration. It also makes you more likely to develop conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Touch starvation is hard to experience, but there are simple ways to welcome more touch into your life.

If you can’t physically interact with others due to sickness or another reason, there are other ways you can accomplish this.

Consider trying these strategies.

1. Online exercise classes

There are many online exercise classes that you can choose from, including yoga. These online classes allow you to interact without leaving your home. While it doesn’t involve physical touch, it can make you feel less lonely.

Additionally, a 2018 review discusses how physical activity can improve your well-being and cognitive functions such as memory and learning. It can also decrease stress and depression while improving sleep.

2. Wrapping yourself in blankets

You can find comfort by wrapping yourself up in blankets, giving yourself a warm, comforting sensation.

Consider using a weighted blanket that mimics the feeling of a hug. It can help you reach a place of peace and calm.

3. Video chat

Video chatting doesn’t replace human touch, but it can help. When you interact with others, it can help ease some signs of touch starvation.

4. Self-massage

A self-massage can help you overcome touch starvation as it stimulates nerves. Research from 2015 suggests that stimulating the vagus nerve may help reduce stress.

Additionally, the massage gives you some of the human contact that you crave.

5. Singing and dancing

These activities boost oxytocin levels, promoting happiness, even when you can’t be with others. So, when you’re feeling lonely, consider turning on your favorite uplifting music and dancing around your living room.

You can even have a dance party with a friend or loved one during a video chat.

6. Reflecting on previous experiences

If you can’t physically touch your loved ones, think back on the last time you did. A 2019 review discusses how recounting previous memories can help you overcome negative feelings.

7. Use pillows

Pillows can help you feel secure and comfortable as they mimic cuddling. Try a body pillow to achieve the feeling of having a loved one next to you. If you don’t have a body pillow, hugging a regular pillow can help reduce stress.

8. Playing or cuddling with your pet

Interacting with a pet can help you relax and reduce stress. It’s a form of interaction and eases symptoms of touch starvation.

Cuddling a pet increases oxytocin levels and decreases loneliness.

9. Communicate regularly

Even if you can’t physically be with your family or friends, regular communication will help. Send text messages and talk on the phone as often as you can.

If your symptoms are worsening or beginning to affect your daily life, it may be time to seek support from a professional.

You’ll know you should seek help if your mood:

  • lasts more than 2 weeks
  • interferes with your ability to function
  • makes you feel hopeless
  • causes you to contemplate suicide

Therapy is beneficial, but you don’t have to do it in person if you’re not comfortable.

Virtual therapy options allow you to get the help you need when visiting a mental health professional isn’t possible. You can have sessions through video chat, phone call, or instant messaging.

As social beings, humans need connection and touch. Without it, you can experience lasting mental health effects such as depression and anxiety.

If you’re starved for physical touch, finding simple ways to ease this feeling — such as curling up with your favorite blanket or body pillow — can help.

If these feelings seem to last more than 2 weeks or begin to interfere with your daily functioning, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can offer tools and strategies to help.

If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health and support.