Skin Hunger

In this week's blog post, Dr Kitty Wheater looks at ‘skin hunger’ – our neurological need for touch – and explore some ways of using mindfulness to tune into this.

A black and white photograph of two men hugging each other.

Skin Hunger

‘Skin hunger is the biological need for human touch,’ writes Sirin Kale for Wired. ‘It’s why babies in neonatal intensive care units are placed on their parent’s naked chests. It’s the reason that prisoners in solitary confinement often report craving human contact as ferociously as they desire their liberty.’

It's also why, three months into lockdown, many of us may feel increasingly tearful, low, or flat. Perhaps you live alone, or you may live in that kind of respectful but distant adult co-habitation, with flatmates or family, where you are physically adjacent but never touch. You may be sharing a house with people you don’t like that much. And even if you are living with people you love, and with whom you are physically affectionate, life may simply be so tough right now that your need for connection and comfort feels ravenous. There is a reason why many of us say, after a long day, ‘can I have a hug?’

Yet if you work for the NHS, live with an NHS worker, or even if someone in your household has just popped out to the shops, it feels as though touch must be curated and planned for. After your shower, after you’ve washed your hands, after you’ve washed the milk cartons in soapy water in the kitchen sink. Did you touch the door handle again when you went to the post? It’s not exactly an auspicious climate for all the casual small comforts of other people’s presence: the hand on the shoulder, or back, or arm.

At this time, when we must be so vigilant about touch, you may spot various signs in mind and body that your system is craving it. Like Alice, a young Londoner in Kale’s article, you may notice after a hug that “You just get that rush of feeling better…like it’s all okay.” You may miss friends or family so much that it actually hurts – which it does. You may be hankering after a former pet, or the dog you used to walk before lockdown (how I miss Ben the collie, and his silky ears).

You may start to notice other ways in which the body is seeking out contact, too. When you skip your daily walk and feel grumpy afterwards, it’s not just that your body is missing its cardiovascular release, your mind its hit of green. “Simply walking around your room stimulates the pressure receptors in your feet,” says Tiffany Field, of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. When you collapse onto the couch at the end of the day, your body wants to be held up. Every teenager’s default lounging position, remember, is full-length on the floor.

So how might we respond kindly to our need for touch during this time? Here are some things that might help.


1.     Reach out to those around you

When mood is slipping, we often start to withdraw. You may notice that you have stopped being affectionate with your family; alternatively you may find, when someone hugs you, that you inexplicably become tearful. Both of these are very normal. See what it’s like to begin to reach out again: a hand on your mum’s arm when she has brought you a cup of tea, a hug from a flatmate you trust. Be gentle with yourself, start small, and see what happens.

Sometimes, reaching out begins with a conversation. You may even notice, if all your interactions are online at the moment, that a friend tells you after a good chat ‘I wish I could give you a hug.’ The mind may well prompt melancholy at this thought – ‘but he can’t!’ And yet: see if it’s possible to pause, and take in your friend’s well-wishing. Notice what happens in the body, and know that that hug will come, in good time.

Meanwhile, if you have a dog as lovely as Ben the collie, stroke the dog. “Having pets is wonderful,’ says Field. “When you pet a dog, you’re also moving your own skin and experiencing pressure stimulation.” Give yourself permission to spend time with your pet, as near or far as suits you both.


2.     Feel your feet

You may live alone, or feel so flat and tired that reaching out to those you live with feels like too much effort. Movement that affects the receptors in the soles of the feet can be very grounding, and in turn, energising.

So walk, if you like to walk. There’s some great guidance here on mindful walking from Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace. Many of us will want to walk outside at this time of year, but walking inside if you can’t go out, picking a short path that you can traverse up and down, can be surprisingly calming. Notice your feet as you walk: if we are anxious, we may find that we are walking on the balls of the feet, almost bouncing. If we are low, it may be all that we can do to put one foot in front of the other. Allow your feet to sense the ground, holding you up.

Or shut the door, draw the curtains, put on some music, and dance in your socks. Feel the floor underneath your feet. If you’re stuck for knowing what to listen to, try the recommendations at the bottom of this blog, by University Chaplain Harriet Harris. If you’re stuck for knowing how to dance, don’t worry about that, and go with it: the body knows what it needs.


3.     Seek out quiet comfort

If you have small children climbing all over you every minute of the day, you may feel ‘touched out’. Likewise, if you are feeling introverted, or that kind of exhausted-on-a-cellular-level that is perilously close to burnout, you may need quieter forms of sensory comfort.

Photograph of a hand outstretched on decking, beside the hand their is a brown, black and white spotted butterfly that is touching the tip of the fingers with it's legs.

So try your favourite blanket wrapped round you, tucked up on the couch. Gardening, and the soil under your fingers. Lying in the sun in a park for half an hour, feeling the grass beneath you. The weight of a really good hardback in your hands. A fresh pillow-case on your pillow tonight. Fields suggests, ‘‘give yourself a scalp massage, or rub moisturiser into your face.” And don’t under-estimate the power of giving yourself a hug; yes, literally.

You may like to do a body scan for your mindfulness practice this week, especially sensing the contact that the body makes with the floor, the mat, or the bed.

‘Skin hunger’ is a great phrase, because it reminds us that nourishing our senses is a key part of nourishing our minds at the moment. It needn’t take much; sometimes a well-timed walk is all that’s needed to turn a day around. But on the other hand, it could be something to choose ‘skin food’ regularly, little and often, asking yourself what might help – and sometimes being a bit brave, and turning the music up louder, just so you can lie on the floor like a teenager, and really enjoy it.