Skin Hunger: If You’re Feeling Like Crap, This Maybe Why

If you’re currently feeling ‘like crap’, a well-known psychological term, this may help explain why.

Humans are, on the whole, social animals. We need to experience a sense of belonging, in whatever sense that works for each of us. If we can’t achieve that pro-socially, some will seek it out anti-socially, with gangs and the like.

In the midst of a pandemic world where huge swathes of the world population have currently been ‘ordered’ into isolation by the powers that be, many are beginning to be impacted in ways they have never previously understood. Large numbers of people are on their own without family and friends. Many are starting to recognise the need to ‘interact’ and the internet just does not cut it.

While we are seeing an outbreak of community care- with people delivering food, writing letters, deliberately seeking to connect via phone and the internet, teachers doing drivebys to wave to their school charges, and friends celebrating birthdays through car windows, for many it feels like not enough.

This is why.

Every aspect of our lives has been affected. We are experiencing physical, emotional, mental, intellectual and even spiritual stress as never before. Psychologically we all have basic ‘survival’ needs. These include food, water, shelter, and touch. Once those basic needs are met, then we can move onto looking at more, but right now, many people are operating at the very bottom of the ‘human needs’ pyramid.


When working as a clinical and educational psychologist before retiring I found that the concept of ‘skin hunger’ was very real, although most people were not able to give it a name.

When you think about piles of puppies, or laboratory monkeys forced to choose between a “wire mother” who provided food or a “cloth mother” that only offered sensory and tactile support—and who chose emotional nourishment over food—it is clear that tactile stimulation and close contact with others is necessary to our well-being. The almost universal desire to wrap tiny babies in embraces is an example of how we all long to be close to another. Yet as we get older, there may be fewer and fewer opportunities to satisfy our hunger for the touch of another human being.

Skin Hunger is a deep longing and aching desire for physical contact with another person. In 1987 Bob Samples published a book called Open Mind, Whole Mind, in which he identified more than 20 human sensory systems essential to our survival, of which touch is one. Touch is considered the first sense we acquire and our skin is our largest sensory organ. Through it we experience contact with others and with our environment. Understanding this formed the basis for the recovery of many people with whom I worked, including those with depression and suicide ideation. Re-connecting them with those they cared about was an import step to recovery.

While touch can, in some cases, lead to terror when it is forced or unwelcome, when it comes from individuals in whom we safely can place our trust, it impacts our entire well-being.

In empirical studies, researchers have found that a welcome embrace functions as a protective layer against stress. In controlled studies comparing individuals who had and had not received a hug from their romantic partners prior to a stressful event, those who had enjoyed a warm embrace showed lower reactions to stressful situations. A welcome hug can also have smaller increases in blood pressure, both systolic and diastolic.

Hugs have also been shown to increase the production of oxytocin in humans; this is the hormone that positively influences our bonding and nurturing behaviours. Some researchers have begun looking at the role of oxytocin in fostering the warm relationship between grandparent and grandchild. But regardless of age or stage, a hug is a sure-fire well-being booster shot.

Humans need physical contact, and we all experience skin hunger that needs satisfying—whether you are cuddling a tiny infant or gently embracing your great-grandmother, you are providing a little bit of comfort, stress reduction, and healing.

In current times, not being able to hug a friend, a partner, your kids or your grandkids will have an impact on your mental and physical health. To be denied this can almost feel torturous. So be gentle and realise what’s happening to you. Reach out to others, write down what you have learned about yourself and what you want to continue when the lockdown finishes, and make plans for what you will do when this nightmare ultimately ends.