Feeling desperate for a hug? Science can explain why

Feeling desperate for a hug? Science can explain why

A lack of physical contact has neurological effects and leads to 'skin hunger'


Friday, 29 May 2020, 17:14

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You don't know how lucky you are to live through this nightmare alongside somebody else, despite the disputes that I imagine can occur. Right now, I would give anybody a hug".

When she wrote that, writer Elsa Veiga had been on her own at home for nearly 12 weeks. There was not even a pet to keep her company during the strict lockdown conditions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like Elsa, thousands of people who live alone in Spain - and there are 4.7 million of them, according to the National Institute of Statistics - have felt that intense need to hug, hold someone's hand, caress, just touch someone.

Does that sound banal to you? Well, actually it isn't. The absence of touch is an added stress factor for people who are on their own, compared with others. Known as 'skin hunger', it is a neurological episode that reveals why we all need contact and how we deteriorate without it.

Humans are "programmed by nature" to touch and be touched. The skin is the organ charged with receiving a large amount of valuable information about life.

"Through the somatosensory system, we transmit to the brain the different qualities of contacts there are with our surroundings. From the skin, that information travels through complex systems which end in the cerebral cortex and it is our brain that processes all that information," explains Pablo Eguía, a neurologist and member of the Spanish Neurology Society (SEN).

That information that we transmit about the environment is very varied: from knowing the temperature to the position of the body in space. But it is also the channel through which we interpret signs of affection.

"Affection is another necessity for human beings and physical contact is one of the main ways of obtaining it. No matter what we may call it, it is a need which has been widely studied," says Dr Eguía.

The term 'skin hunger' is used by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami in its studies. Tiffany Field, one of its members, said in a recent work that the sensory design of human beings through skin is designed "to increase our feelings of wellbeing in social environments". Being with others, she says, optimises the possibilities of survival. That is why solitude makes us perceive reality as a threat. For that reason, "when we suffer anxiety for some reason, being touched is a form of help".

There are two stages in life in which "empathetic contact", as Neurology calls it, is of vital importance: when we are babies and in our old age. Hence the famous 'skin to skin' practised in hospitals with newborn babies. The feeling of being hugged to the chest, collecting information through the skin when the rest of the senses have yet to develop, aids the baby's wellbeing and cerebral development.

"Studies suggest that those who have been deprived of that physical contact in the first months of life develop more psychological problems as adults," says Eguía.

Analgesic effect

At the other extreme, "when we think about adults, solitude has a very negative effect on people and it is probably partly due to the absence of physical contact," he says.

In fact, one of the pieces of advice that specialists normally give for a healthy brain is to expand affective relationships and avoid social isolation. This is so important that its benefits seem to go beyond even that.

"It seems to have some type of analgesic effect. Several studies have been published about this and they all indicate that, if it is empathetic, contact will activate brain mechanisms that help people to control and cope with pain better," says Eguía.

From an emotional aspect, physical isolation is devastating. "Not touching a living being, not being touched, has been the hardest part of the lockdown. I'm used to living alone, spending days with nothing happening, but two long months is just too much. At first I prepared myself mentally and that wasn't the priority, but after so long there are days when you wake up longing to hug someone. It is something so simple, but it has become a luxury and a primary need," says Elsa Veiga.

Lola Valenzuela, who works in Communication, has experienced the same strong need. Her surprise came when she decided to go to the hairdresser.

"I asked them to give me a capillary treatment because my hair was falling out with the stress, and they massaged it into my scalp. I felt such a strange need to cry. It was the closest thing I had had to a hug in three months," she says.

They both agree that the "sadness and anxiety" caused by the pandemic "wouldn't have been as bad if another person or a pet had been there to share it".

Elsa says "what is amazing is that you get used to it", and it pains her to think how long things will remain this way because of the need to maintain social distancing.

Meanwhile, maybe it is some consolation to know that it is in our nature to want to socialise through touch, in order to survive. Even though at the moment that may seem rather a paradox.

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