During this otherwise cold, lonely, scary spring of 2020, while the coronavirus rages on and we are all told to stay home, I am very fortunate that I live with someone, someone with whom I have an intimate relationship: my husband.
My husband and I share a business that we mostly operate from home, so we are used to spending long hours working in the same space every day. The irritations we usually weather are enhanced by the stress of the world situation, the fear for our friends family, and the requirement that we stay put, when we would otherwise be travelling weekly between our residences and other locales for our business.
What we share besides our business and the enhanced irritations of forced close proximity is affection for each other, specifically, frequent gentle nonsexual touch throughout the day. For this I consider myself and my husband very fortunate. (Also for the other category of touch, but I won’t be discussing that here!)
There are many people who are not so fortunate. People who live alone and people who are quarantined because they are sick with this virus are at risk of suffering something called affection deprivation, sometimes referred to as skin hunger.
I first heard of skin hunger when I was in school during a study of the depression that residents of nursing homes suffer. Decades later, New York Times writer Andrew Reiner discussed this phenomenon with regard to his father in the introduction to his December 5, 2017 article “The Power of Touch, Especially for Men.” Reiner said his father “was slowly dying in a nursing home, and no one who visited him — from my mother, his wife of 42 years, to my three siblings — held his hand.” When Reiner finally ignored his fears and his sense of male social propriety and reached out and touched his father’s hand, the dying man’s “curled fingers opened, unhinging some long-sealed door within me, then lightly closed around mine.” It became clear to Reiner that both he and his father needed that touch.
Many scientists have studied the human need for touch, and long before this pandemic, they have recognized that recent developments in society have discouraged us from feeding that hunger lest we get into legal trouble. Neuroscientist Francis McGlone, having studied the neurophysiological sense of touch and its hedonic attributes for decades, told The Guardian’s Paul Coccozza that, “Of course we are moving away from touch!” (No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch? The Guardian News & Media Limited, 7 Mar 2018).
Coccozza has, shall we say, touched on (!) an issue that existed before the coronavirus sent us all home. Kory Floyd Ph.D., self-described “Affectionado” and professor of health and interpersonal communications, stated in Psychology Today that “Just as lack of food, water, and rest have their detrimental effects, so too does the lack of affection” (What Lack of Affection Can Do to You. Aug 31, 2013). His study of 509 adults delineates the negative health effects associated with affection deprivation, including depression, anxiety, secondary immune disorders, and fearful-avoidant attachment style. When I inquired in an email to Dr. Floyd if he thought there is a rise in skin hunger during this time of social distancing, he replied that though he hasn’t collected any data, “It does seem, though, that this period of isolation is particularly difficult for those who feel lonely or affection deprived already” (April 6, 2020).
What is important to understand is that it is perfectly normal for people who are isolated because of this pandemic to have these symptoms. It might be helpful to understand that skin hunger is a real thing, though one might have very few options about how to satisfy it under these circumstances. Neurobiologist David Linden PhD told Coccozza that “Even petting your dog. Even petting a dog that’s not yours” can soothe the solitary. Maybe it’s a good time to adopt an animal. You could both rescue each other!