For many people, this period of mandated physical distance will bring on pangs of skin hunger.
A common theme has been showing up in the virtual therapy office, especially for individuals who are single and isolating alone in their homes. That theme revolves around skin hunger, a yearning for touch and physical contact, as client's shared feelings of wanting, needing a hug. People who identify as touchers, huggers, and whose love language is touch are experiencing a particularly hard time as they follow the guidance to stay in their homes. If, like some of my clients, you live alone, are new to the area, or did not have an opportunity to binge on closeness with friends and family before retreating home, you may be wondering where these feelings are coming from and ways to better manage during self-isolation.
Beginning with the body in mind
Touch is thought to be the first of our senses to develop and considering that our largest sensory organ is skin, it makes sense for physical contact to be a common desire for many people. What exactly is happening in the body when we embrace someone that we care for, trust and love? Maybe a feeling of warmth spreads over your body. Or a thought of being secure and protected. You may not have ever thought to put words to your experience during a warm embrace but realized that you felt better, like a need had been met. It is similar to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure derived by beautiful scenery, the scent of your lover, eating your favorite food, and listening to nature. In other words, stimulating our senses is a pleasurable experience that we typically desire and try to acquire. Some people even enjoy these more when other people are involved.
We know from research that physical closeness and touch can be comforting and decreases stress or minimizes the reaction to stress. It has also been suggested that the impact of a warm hug can last throughout the day! Maybe in addition to the saying about eating apples and taking vitamins everyday, we should hug more – a hug a day keeps the stress away.
Another, and probably the most, important factor for why consensual touch is so desirable and comforting is called oxytocin. Oxytocin, dubbed the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, is produced in the brain and acts as a neurotransmitter. It is released during embracing, encourages bonding, and controls key aspects of the female reproductive system such as labor and breastfeeding. So, when you are being physically affectionate, your brain’s reward system goes off and sends ‘feel good’ messages to the rest of your body.
There are more hormones that make us happy
Serotonin helps as a regulator for several body functions – mood, digestion, sleep, memory, and more. If you are familiar with medications for depression, you may have heard of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs. Depression is associated with low levels of serotonin, along with other chemical imbalances in the brain. SSRIs are used to reduce symptoms of depression by making more serotonin available in the brain. Exercise and light are known serotonin boosters.
Dopamine is all about pleasure and rewards. It is associated with the brain’s reward system, learning, motivation, goal setting, feeling good and more. In short, dopamine is released when you do things that feel good and motivates you to seek out the pleasurable feeling again. Because this hormone is linked to seeking out and engaging in pleasure, it can include problematic and addicting behaviors as well.
Endorphins are the body’s pain reliever and is released in response to discomfort and stress. This hormone impacts our perception of pain, is associated with positive feelings in our body, and can help alleviate anxiety. And, if you’ve ever heard someone talk about the euphoric feeling they get after a great laugh, exercising, or having sex, you can probably thank endorphins for that!
Now that we know what is happening in our body and brain when we are in a good mood, we can intentionally practice and prioritize activities that help release those 'feel good' hormones during our time(s) of physical distance from others. Here are a few ideas:
Cuddle your pets for a boost in oxytocin release.
Engage the senses available to you for moments of pleasure.
Reach out for virtual hugs via call, text, and video. But don’t leave it at that, talk about how you wish they were there for a hug and verbalize the emotions that you are feeling.
Practice mindfulness: Slow down a little more when you touch yourself. When you are showering, putting on lotion, getting dressed, walking, or even while sitting, pay attention to how your body is experincing touch.
Masturbate as a tool for touch, stress relief, and releasing oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine (during orgasm).
Cuddle yourself: Use a weighted blanket or wrap up in several blankets. Lay on a body pillow or several pillows. Hug yourself and smile.
Challenge yourself to find an activity that releases all four feel good hormones! This is a time not of deprivation but of creativity.
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owns Healing Exchange LLC. She specializes in supporting healing after sexual violence, building self-esteem and confidence, and teaching healthy sexuality to individuals, those in relationships, and within supportive group settings. She also cofounded Afrosexology, a sex-positive, pleasure based sexuality education platform.