‘Skin hunger is the biological need for human touch,’ writes Sirin Kale for Wired. ‘It’s why babies in neonatal intensive care units are placed on their parent’s naked chests. It’s the reason that prisoners in solitary confinement often report craving human contact as ferociously as they desire their liberty.’ It’s also why, two months into lockdown, many of us may feel increasingly tearful, low, or flat. Perhaps you live alone, or you may live in that kind of respectful but distant adult co-habitation, with flatmates or family, where you are physically adjacent but never touch. You may be sharing a house with people you don’t like that much. And even if you are living with people you love, and with whom you are physically affectionate, life may simply be so tough right now that your need for connection and comfort feels ravenous. There is a reason why many of us say, after a long day, ‘can I have a hug?’
Yet if you work for the NHS, live with an NHS worker, or even if someone in your household has just popped out to the shops, it feels as though touch must be curated and planned for. After your shower, after you’ve washed your hands, after you’ve washed the milk cartons in soapy water in the kitchen sink. Did you touch the door handle again when you went to the post? It’s not exactly an auspicious climate for all the casual small comforts of other people’s presence: the hand on the shoulder, or back, or arm.
At this time, when we must be so vigilant about touch, you may spot various signs in mind and body that your system is craving it. Like Alice, a young Londoner in Kale’s article, you may notice after a hug that “You just get that rush of feeling better…like it’s all okay.” You may miss friends or family so much that it actually hurts. You may be hankering after a former pet, or the dog you used to walk before lockdown. You may start to notice other ways in which the body is seeking out contact, too. So how might we respond kindly to our need for touch during this time? Here are some things that might help.
1. Reach out to those around you
When mood is slipping, we often start to withdraw. You may notice that you have stopped being affectionate with your family; alternatively you may find, when someone hugs you, that you inexplicably become tearful. Both of these are very normal. See what it’s like to begin to reach out again: a hand on your mum’s arm when she has brought you a cup of tea, a hug from a flatmate you trust. Be gentle with yourself, start small, and see what happens.
Sometimes, reaching out begins with a conversation. You may even notice, if all your interactions are online at the moment, that a friend tells you after a good chat ‘I wish I could give you a hug.’ The mind may well prompt melancholy at this thought – ‘but he can’t!’ And yet: see if it’s possible to pause, and take in your friend’s well-wishing. Notice what happens in the body, and know that that hug will come, in good time. Meanwhile, if you have a pet, give yourself permission to spend time with them, as near or far as suits you both.
2. Feel your feet
You may live alone, or feel so flat and tired that reaching out to those you live with feels like too much effort. Movement that affects the receptors in the soles of the feet can be very grounding, and in turn, energising. So walk, if you like to walk. Many of us will want to walk outside at this time of year, but walking inside if you can’t go out, picking a short path that you can traverse up and down, can be surprisingly calming. Notice your feet as you walk: if we are anxious, we may find that we are walking on the balls of the feet, almost bouncing. If we are low, it may be all that we can do to put one foot in front of the other. Allow your feet to sense the ground, holding you up.
Or shut the door, draw the curtains, put on some music, and dance in your socks. Feel the floor underneath your feet.
3. Seek out quiet comfort
If you have small children climbing all over you every minute of the day, you may feel ‘touched out’. Likewise, if you are feeling introverted, or that kind of exhausted-on-a-cellular-level that is perilously close to burnout, you may need quieter forms of sensory comfort. So try your favourite blanket wrapped round you, tucked up on the couch. Gardening, and the soil under your fingers. Lying in the sun in a park for half an hour, feeling the grass beneath you. The weight of a really good hardback in your hands. A fresh pillow-case on your pillow tonight. You may like to do a body scan for your mindfulness practice this week, especially sensing the contact that the body makes with the floor, the mat, or the bed.
‘Skin hunger’ is a great phrase, because it reminds us that nourishing our senses is a key part of nourishing our minds at the moment. It needn’t take much; sometimes a well-timed walk is all that’s needed to turn a day around. But on the other hand, it could be something to choose ‘skin food’ regularly, little and often, asking yourself what might help – and sometimes being a bit brave, and turning the music up louder, just so you can lie on the floor like a teenager, and really enjoy it.
There’s a 40 min bodyscan to go with the thoughts for this week.