On skin hunger and the psychological comforts of physical contact.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a touch from a loved one—a hand on a shoulder, a full-on bear hug, a gentle tucking of hair behind an ear—are worth that tenfold. There’s a reason why touch is a love language, after all: Contact is a human need. And that’s why, in a time when touch can bring more danger than benefit, it’s especially hard to deal, as author Kristen Radtke’s recent op-ed in the New York Times points out.
Psychologists have even coined a term for that feeling you get when you haven’t shared an embrace, or even a handshake in a while. Skin hunger is the desire for physical connection, be it romantic or totally platonic. Touch releases oxytocin, a neurotransmitter also known as “the love hormone,” which strengthens emotional bonds—which could be why a simple brush of fingers with a cute cashier could leave you wondering hours later, What are we? A hug can reduce the stress of everyone involved, lower blood pressure, and improve memory (but mainly when it’s an embrace with someone you already know and love). Physical affection can strengthen your sense of self and give you a better sense of body ownership (when someone else feels you, you start feeling yourself). And when someone places a hand on your shoulder, you’re more likely to comply with whatever they ask of you (consider this your new favorite subliminal bargaining trick).
Living in a scenario without touch is hard. But it’s not like we haven’t seen these scenarios play out before—at least, in fiction. Two movies, Everything, Everything and Five Feet Apart center around the ever-growing tension between young lovers who can’t even shake hands. Courtney Maum’s 2017 novel Touch shows the damage inflicted on a relationship when one party decides to embrace “post-sexual sex” and wear a Lycra bodysuit (that even covers his face) in public. There’s obviously a reason why Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, Ariana Grande, and countless others have quite literally sang the praises of physical connection.
While contact might not be the best way of coping with an uneasy, stressful time, when the fog lifts and isolation is over, you might find some comfort in a pat on the back. But for now, you can try to get your fix in other ways—you can go full Lars and the Real Girl with a body pillow you have lying around, pull out that foot massager you got as a present two Christmases ago, or even consider fostering a pet who can give you all the cuddles and licks you know you’re craving. We won’t even blame you if you have a full conversation with Siri while giving yourself a nice shoulder rub, either.