Lifestyle features

Affection deprivation: What happens to our bodies when we go without touch?

As Boris Johnson looks set to allow loved ones in England to hug others for the first time since the pandemic began, Helen Coffey finds out why we crave human contact

Friday 08 May 2020 19:29 BST
Going without physical contact has scientifically-proven effects on our wellbeing
Going without physical contact has scientifically-proven effects on our wellbeing (Getty/iStock)

“It’s hard to remember when I last had physical contact with another human. That’s how normal it used to be – I wouldn’t even think about hugging a friend or brushing past someone in the office, or shaking hands with someone.”

Stephanie*, a writer in Singapore, has lived alone for years. Independent and sociable, it never really bothered her before now. Company was found elsewhere: at work; over dinner with friends; during drinks with a date. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck and lockdown ensued, all human contact came to a cruelly abrupt halt. Stephanie estimates it’s now been about two months since she touched someone.

“I’ve been surprised by how badly it’s affected me,” she says. “Touch has become such a huge absence in my life. I feel it constantly, ironically. It’s not sexual contact I’m missing really, but the quick hug you give your friend when you meet for a coffee or the friendly pat on the arm that resolves a difficult work conversation. So much is normally communicated in those moments.”

She’s found, too, that the lack is impacting on her mental wellbeing. “I feel slightly hollow all the time, and profoundly lonely. I find that I am questioning myself so much more – I have no confidence in my decisions. Maybe that’s just the general stress of a pandemic, but I’m sure that someone just holding my hand and saying ‘hey, it’s fine’, would make it go away.”

Stephanie’s grief at the loss of touch is not just a “feeling” – it is a real, neurological issue, according to scientists. Her body wants touch because that’s how we’re physically programmed, along with every other type of mammal. “All human primates are wired for touch, whether we like or not,” says Francis McGlone, a professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University.

“‘Skin hunger’ is a layman’s term for what, in research, is known as ‘affection deprivation’, which is associated with a range of psychological and even physical health detriments,” adds Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona who has written extensively on how a dearth of tactile affection can be linked to stress, depression, loneliness and anxiety. “People who live alone are certainly more susceptible and, right now, I think it’s reasonable to argue that almost anyone is more susceptible than normal to the lack of touch and other forms of affectionate behaviour.”

When we talk about “touch”, most of us think of the immediate feeling – the nerve in the skin that informs the brain of the sensation quick-sharp. But McGlone’s area of interest lies in a different nerve altogether – the C-tactile afferent.

This touch-hungry nerve fibre responds specifically to gentle stroking and, unlike its counterpart, does not send this information to the brain straight away – it takes several seconds to arrive.

I feel slightly hollow all the time, and profoundly lonely

“That nerve clearly evolved differently,” says McGlone. “The nerve fibre fires up areas of the brain that connect to reward. There’s a release of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a fundamental role in our social behaviour. It has an effect on our dopamine levels, which is the brain’s reward system; it impacts on the release of serotonin, which is connected to our happiness and wellbeing; it has an impact on our stress system; and it helps lower our heart rate.”

Not bad for a bit of gentle stroking.

“The effects of touch are physiological, bioelectrical and biochemical,” agrees Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute at Miami Medical School. “Moving the skin (as, for example, in hugging, massaging and exercise) stimulates pressure receptors which are transmitted to the vagus nerve, the largest cranial nerve that has many branches in the body. Increased vagal activity calms the nervous system (eg slows heart rate and leads to EEG patterns that accompany relaxation). It also reduces cortisol – the culprit stress hormone – that then saves natural killer cells that kill viral, bacterial and cancer cells.”

After 20 years of in-depth research, experts know almost everything there is to know about the C-tactile afferent. For example, it has an optimum speed at which it likes to be touched (3-5cm per second) and an optimal temperature (the same as body temperature, meaning skin on skin works best).

“We know that this nerve has evolved over millions of years and that it’s very important,” says McGlone. “What’s happening now is that, for the first time in evolution, people are not able to experience this thing we usually take for granted. You don’t miss something until it’s gone – but when touch is removed, people will notice that there’s something missing, even if they can’t pin down what it is.”

It’s part of why, despite being more technologically connected than ever before, many of us are feeling bereft. The number of voice and video calls on WhatsApp doubled compared to pre-lockdown, while Zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams and Houseparty all reported a massive spike in usage. So it’s not human faces or voices we’re unconsciously longing for, then; it’s human touch. If, like Stephanie, you live alone and keep thinking “all I want is a cuddle”, that’s down to your nerve fibre “screaming out”, according to McGlone. “Brains are good,” he says, “If they’re lacking something, they’ll tell you to take action.” An obvious example is hunger – when you need to eat, your brain lets you know. With the lack of social touch mandated by Covid-19, your brain may well be telling you that you desperately need a hug.

“I’m sure touch deprivation is a strong trauma for folks who are used to being touched a lot and are now separated, like new romantic relationships or people who are hospitalised,” says Field. In a survey of 260 adults conducted from 25 March to 5 May, her department found that 43 per cent of respondents had experienced loneliness, 58 per cent were feeling isolated and 42 per cent complained of feeling touch deprived.

The effects of a lack of touch, particularly in babies and children, can be heartbreaking. The most widely known example is that of Romanian orphanages, whose abuses were revealed in the early 1990s after the fall of the communist regime. Children were largely neglected in these institutions and received no affectionate physical contact. The result? Most were severely developmentally delayed, both physically and mentally, with many misdiagnosed as having mental disabilities due to physical tics. MRI studies even showed that children who grew up in Romanian orphanages had physically smaller brains than their healthy counterparts. Their experience proved that basic human contact is just as important to a child’s development as nutrition.

Field’s team has also done studies on the impact of touch on children and young people, finding that increased contact leads to less aggressive behaviour. “We studied preschool children on playgrounds in Paris and Mami,” she explains. “The parents were more physically affectionate on the Paris playgrounds and their preschoolers in turn were less physically and verbally aggressive towards their peers.”

What’s happening now is that, for the first time in evolution, people are not able to experience this thing we usually take for granted

Our responses are mirrored by other mammals in the animal kingdom, too. Despite owners’ frequent calls of “good boy”, one study found that dogs were pretty much immune to verbal praise, while they loved physical touch and petting. In the lab, an experiment conducted by Doctor Michael Meaney compared rats that had had mothers who licked and groomed them regularly as babies with those that didn’t. The former were far more social animals with lower stress levels than those in the latter group, who tended to be anxious and aggressive – displaying similar behaviours to children from abused homes.

Even in adults, the consequences of touch deprivation are stark. “When you’re not touched, there’s no overt lockdown of the system, but the role of the C-tactile afferent has far more long-term effects on our physical and mental wellbeing,” says McGlone. “Physical touch moderates our stress and helps us feel contented. Going without may well impact on a person’s resilience to stress.”

Knowing the science behind it may not solve the problem, but it does at least explain why those living alone may have been feeling the loss of something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. McGlone even recommends replicating the feel-good effects by giving yourself a stroke on your upper arms, neck, back and shoulders where there is a higher concentration of the nerve fibre – “guaranteed it will help lower your heart rate and cortisol levels,” he says.

For Stephanie, it’s a matter of counting down the days until normality can be resumed, a semblance of which could well happen on Monday 17 May, when Boris Johnson is expected to announce that family and friends can hug each other again. “I’ve joked to friends that I’m going to be hotfooting it to the bars as soon as this is over,” she says, “but what I really want is the long hug from someone who’s been missing you. I am hoping very much I have lots of those stored up.”

*Name has been changed

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