Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Self-Love in a Time of Skin Hunger

The world is in quarantine. In living memory, we haven’t experienced this particular kind of isolation. It’s one thing to take an online quiz that confirms you’re an introvert; it’s quite another to have the CDC actively discourage you from hugging your friends. Many of us have the luxury of being quarantined with loved ones, but many of us are living alone. Even if you do share physical space with someone, there are so many ways to be isolated right now. I think of assault survivors who are scared or triggered by any kind of touch. I think of people living with roommates, with nothing more in common than dishes in the sink. I think of people in violent relationships, trapped with their abusers and cut off from support. Physical proximity does not equal intimacy. If only it did.

I’m no stranger to skin hunger. Most of us aren’t. The need to be touched is a deep, essential part of who we are as a species. If we can’t fulfill that need, we long for it. When you don’t get enough physical contact, it can trigger depression, raise stress levels, and can even affect your immune system.

Whatever you’ve been through, you probably understand that this is different. Not necessarily better or worse than your past experience; just different. For once, we’re all in this together. Every person on the planet has a common enemy in COVID-19. How strange and beautiful, how haunting it is, that in this time of unprecedented solidarity we are more physically isolated from each other than we have ever been before.

Many studies have found that physical touch — especially skin-to-skin contact — has a chemical effect on the human brain. It decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. The latter three neurotransmitters are part of what allow us to experience good feelings like happiness, comfort, and safety. So how can we trigger the production of these chemicals in the absence of human contact?

What follows is a practical guide to living with and managing skin hunger during quarantine. The internet is teeming with articles that made perfect sense two weeks ago, encouraging skin hungry readers to cuddle a friend or shake hands with a colleague. These solutions are no longer available to us. Nevertheless, however ironically, we still have each other. And we still have ourselves. If you can, use this time to deepen your relationship with your own body and mind. Here are some ways to soothe your skin hunger, even in isolation.

Life Finds a Way

When you’re far from people, you can still connect with living things. If you have a pet, spend extra time cuddling them. If you don’t, you probably won’t be able to change that until after this pandemic. Fortunately, interacting with plants can also lower your cortisol levels and improve your mood. You can water them, play music for them, and even gently pet their leaves. If you have house plants, name them and talk to them. If you don’t, spend as much time outside as you safely can. In the U.S., even shelter-at-home protocols allow healthy people to take solitary walks and sit in the backyard.

Caring for living things will also help you structure your day. Experts say that creating a routine can give you a sense of purpose and combat loneliness. Feed a pet or simply care for a plant on a schedule to get started. Alternatively, set a time every day to go outside. In inclement weather, you can just stand in your doorway and breath in fresh, cold air. If you’re unable to do that, sit by a window. Just looking outside can relieve stress.

Simple Pleasures

Focusing on the five senses can be a safe way to experience your own body. In a moment of relative calm, write down a list of sensory experiences you find comforting. Some examples might be: a lavender-scented candle, the sound of rain, or photos of kittens.

When you’re facing skin hunger, it’s especially helpful to focus on the sense of touch. Try taking a hot shower, holding a cup of tea, or petting a soft blanket. Fill your mind with this experience. The more present you are in the moment, the more effective this exercise will be.

When making your list, choose experiences that are meaningful to you, not just those you’ve been told “should” be calming. Keep your written list on hand. In times of anxiety, refer back to it and choose an item you can easily accomplish in the moment. Focus on your senses, and remind yourself that no matter what, you still have your own body. This is true even when you’re afraid, and even when you’re ill. As long as you are alive, you will always have a body.

A Sense of Self

Proprioception, sometimes called the sixth sense, is the awareness of one’s own body in space. As you go about your day, you know where your limbs are in relation to each other. You lift a spoon to your mouth, and you don’t have to think about aiming it. You put one foot in front of the other when you walk, without concentrating on how to rotate your hips. This sense of self is so innate, and so essential, that most of us take it for granted.

In times of trauma, however, many people dissociate. Some experts say this is related to the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” response. When we dissociate, we pull back from our own body awareness to protect our minds from emotional pain. While this is a normal response to external threats, it can become a new form of trauma, as it prevents us from being in control of our own bodies.

Whether or not you struggle with dissociation, you may have limited body awareness due to chronic pain. The human mind can get used to almost anything. When you feel pain or tightness for long enough, eventually your brain just files it away and ignores it. This helps us get through each day, but it bars us from long-term healing.

The two most accessible ways to improve body awareness are meditation and movement. Daily meditation boosts serotonin. Whether you use an app or guide yourself through this practice, begin each session by checking in with your body. Starting with your head, scan slowly down to your feet. Bring your awareness to your muscles. Notice any tightness, pain, relaxation, or other feelings. Notice the way the ground beneath you supports your whole body. As you do this, be careful not to judge any sensations. Even pain is not good or bad; it’s just information. Acknowledge how you feel, and gently move on.

Movement can improve both your body awareness and your mood. Even if you’re not able to exercise, you can always move your body. Do yoga or gentle stretches. Dance in your kitchen. Give yourself a hug. If you’re stuck in bed, make silly faces that stretch out your eyebrows and jaw muscles. Learn to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time. If you can make yourself laugh with a simple gesture, so much the better.

Tools of the Trade

We’re all under a great mental and emotional strain right now. As a result, even those of us who are healthy may be experiencing physical pain. Perhaps your shoulders are tight from spending too much time on the computer, or your stomach aches every time you read the news. Your legs might be sore because you’re used to spending more time on your feet. Lack of physical activity can be just as damaging as overuse. Although most massage practices are closed for the duration of the quarantine, self-massage is the next best thing.

It can be difficult to massage yourself for all the same reasons it’s difficult to tickle yourself. You can “trick” your brain by using simple tools instead. Try rolling a tennis ball around under the sole of your foot, or working out stubborn knots in your neck with the butt of a toothbrush. If you have one, you can even use a (recently sterilized!) vibrator to reach your lower back muscles.

In her poem, “How to Really Love a Child,” SARK writes, “if they’re crabby, put them in water.” This advice works for adults too. Hot water alleviates depression and regulates sleep patterns. A hot bath or shower can trigger the release of oxytocin, producing similar effects as human touch.

In moments of acute stress, turn to cold water. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (or DBT) teaches that holding an ice cube in your hand can distract you from self-destructive tendencies. This simple act causes temporary pain without doing any harm. When you fall into an emotional spiral this is a healthy, if extreme, way to ground yourself.

When living in isolation, skin hunger can be overwhelming. Try to be gentle with yourself. Desire is not a flaw. All of us — we fragile, yearning humans — share this need to some degree. That’s especially true right now. Call it compassion, call it empathy, or call it the collective unconscious; we’re all in this together. Take heart. Hope is a discipline, and this is a chance to practice it.

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