Skin Hunger Is The Loneliness of Not Being Touched

The adverse psychological effects of losing physical contact.

Photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash

In ninth grade, I noticed how alone I felt. At lunch, one day, and a few of us sat in an open classroom eating. We joked around, and I demanded a hug for a laugh. My crush was there, and I got it without hesitation when I asked for a hug. He surprised me because I thought he’d say no. He didn’t know I liked him.

I was not much to look at then — I was plain, awkward, and had no fashion sense, which was good because there was no money at home if I did.

When we hugged, the amount of energy flowing into me was shocking, not because of the crush but from the embrace. Only lasting 30 seconds, I didn’t recognize the warmth and comfort because I’d never experienced it before.

My untreated ADHD made it difficult for me to connect with people and form lasting bonds. I could be indifferent, impulsive, and inappropriate. My friend group comprised of kids who had similar socialization challenges. The friends of last resort, we made do.

I have no lasting friendships with people from that time. I didn’t socialize with the few on my Facebook now.

Even now, I can recall that hug from thirty-five years ago like it was yesterday.

Why did it feel so good?

When someone touches you for twenty seconds or more, oxytocin, that fantastic love drug, releases into your blood.

The rewarding sensation of touch in affiliative interactions is hypothesized to be underpinned by a specialized system of nerve fibers called C-Tactile afferents (CTs), which respond optimally to slowly moving, gentle touch, typical of a caress. From C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value,

by Ralph Pawling, Peter R. Cannon, Francis P. McGlone, Susannah C. Walker.

The study this quote is from identified specific nerve fibers a gentle touch may trigger to reduce heart rates and release oxytocin. Oxytocin is the chemical released during sex that makes you feel good.

Human touch can improve your mood. It is not just sensual touching, but holding hands, back-scratching, and foot rubbing count.

Few people had hugged me like that he did that day. No one had held me just to hold me as a child, and no one touched me for the sake of touching me. They had raised me without touch. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize how deprived of physical affection I was as a child.

I never remember sitting in my mom’s lap or snuggling with her on the couch. My mother didn’t do it with my sister, either. There were no bedtime stories, and she didn’t tuck us in or talk to us as we fell asleep.

It wasn’t her thing.

My stepdad never seemed comfortable around my brother and me. The barrier never came down, and I had no attachment to him. Because of that distance, there were very few hugs or snuggles, but he was better than my mother. He was also better with my sister, his only natural child.

Why is touch important?

Intimacy can reduce stress, lower heart rates, and decrease blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic states long-term stress can contribute to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

In children, toxic levels of stress can lead to structural changes in the brain and physical or mental health issues in adulthood. Toxic stress can come from continuous emotional or physical abuse, neglect, or familial stressors like substance abuse and financial hardship. Children exposed to toxic stress can turn into adults with behavioral problems.

Childhood Stress

When I was five, my brother lived with our biological father for six months. We didn’t live close, so we didn’t see him. Up to that point, we’d shared a room in our small apartment, so he’d always be there for me.

When he left, I was alone, and that’s when I became afraid of the dark.

Sometimes, when my stepdad was away, my mom would let me sleep in her bed, but she never held me. I loved those nights because I felt safe and so happy not to be alone in the dark.

Only as a parent did I realize how unnatural my mother’s behavior was. When my children were young, I couldn’t put them down. I needed to hold them close. If we were on the couch, I wrapped them in my love.

In retrospect, I needed them more than they needed me. When they grew into teens, I lost their touch, and it hurt more because my husband no longer touched me either. I was alone again like that child behind the barrier, looking but not touching.

I’ve spent over half of my life without regular intimate contact. The first part of my life was filled with toxic stress from an emotionally abusive mother, distant stepfather, periods of emotional neglect, and chronic financial stress. None of which was mitigated by a loving parental touch or caress.

The isolation caused me to rush into terrible relationships, cheat, and a marriage at the first opportunity that came along, all to find the touch I craved. And now, I’m cheating again just to get the touch I needed.

That teenage hug showed me how sad my young life was.

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© Teresa J. Conway, 2021

By Teresa J Conway on .

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Exported from Medium on April 8, 2021.

Author of How to Cheat: Field Notes from an Adulteress, several short stories, I'm active on Medium @teresajconway where I sometimes share my blog posts.

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