“I thought, ‘If I hug somebody now, I don’t think I’ll ever let go.’ I didn’t want to fall apart on that person. So it was easier in some ways to shut that off.” But she couldn’t do that completely. “I had a couple of times when I just melted down in tears.”
Lack of touch also triggered other issues, such as how she wasn’t able to have children. “The fact you don’t have kids to hug re-emphasises that.”
Having people with children tell her how lucky she was not to be home-schooling, or have a husband to care for, didn’t help. “It’s like, ‘Hello? At least you can hug your kids, hug your husband and have all of that intimacy, whereas I don’t have any of that.’ ”
What Helen went through is known as “skin hunger”, also referred to as “touch deprivation” or “touch starvation”. It happens when a person experiences little or no touch from other living beings. This can lead to a yearning for such contact and can have negative effects on one’s mental health, says clinical psychologist Kirstin Bouse of Perth Psychology Collective.
She says it’s well known that people need the touch of others in order to thrive. As a psychology student, Bouse was taught about babies in Romanian orphanages who were never held. She says the amygdala, the emotion centre in the brain, didn’t develop properly in babies deprived of touch.
“Touch is really important for brain development and ongoing mental health wellbeing,” Bouse says.
“People would really struggle without it.” She adds that we don’t realise how much touch we receive naturally in our everyday lives until it’s gone. “In the absence of that, that’s when we start to suffer and to feel very disconnected from people. We’re more likely to experience depression and anxiety … It has a huge impact on people’s mental health.”
While Helen found comfort cuddling a soft toy, Bouse says using your own touch can also help partially satisfy skin hunger. She recommends engaging in self-massage – not in a sexual way, but with a soothing intent. “Recognise that it’s nice to feel hands on your skin; it’s quite nurturing.” This can be done when showering, or drying off afterwards. “Rather than just mindlessly doing it, slow it down, enjoy it and be mindful of it.”
Patting a pet can also help soften the effects of skin hunger, says Bouse. (Helen would love to have one, but they aren’t allowed in her building.)
Helen believes staying connected with others – via phone calls, texts and writing letters – can also ease the burden of loneliness, even though such measures can’t satisfy a need for touch. She has also found solace in knowing that what she was experiencing was a recognised phenomenon.
“Just seeing the words ‘skin hunger’ was for me a light-bulb moment of, ‘So it is a thing and it has a name’,” she says. “That was a huge relief.”
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 16.