Earlier this month, 33-year-old Matye Lisbeth took to TikTok to create a deeply personal and vulnerable video of her struggles with touch starvation, which is a condition that happens when you don’t get as much physical touch as you’re used to or barely any at all, according to WebMD. In her caption, she wrote, “It’s been 5 years of touch starvation. I’ll probably have some more years of it. I’m not handling this well.” Lisbeth offered a disclaimer at the beginning of her video: “I am really struggling with something, and I want to talk about it. But, before I do, I need people — if you are a parent who is like touched by your children, I do not want to see you in the comments. If you are someone with any kind of neurodivergency, and it manifests or shows up as you not liking touch or people touching you, I do not want to see you in the comments.”
Lisbeth continued, “I feel like I’m dying from touch starvation, y’all. I don’t get hugs. I don’t know. I feel like if I were to get the kind of hug that I f**king really want, I would crumble into pieces.”
Trying to fight back her tears, Lisbeth went on to explain how she’s yearning to be touched by someone she loves, even though she practices self-soothing. “How do you deal with that? I need to be touched, and I know someone’s going to say, ‘Go to the salon and get your hair done, or get a massage or get your nails done so that someone can hold your hand.’ But none of those people love me. None of those services love me, right? But I am struggling. I don’t get hugs. How am I going to go the rest of my life like this? I think that’s hard. I’m just really struggling,” she revealed.
While the video went viral, sparking conversations throughout social media about the importance of intimacy, connection, and receiving physical touch from other humans, Lisbeth shed light on a serious issue, which is the lack of touch and closeness. This issue stems from isolation and isolation loneliness due to COVID-19. A recent study indicated that 36% of all Americans—including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children—feel profound loneliness.
It’s important to note that although some have developed touch starvation because of loneliness and social distancing during the pandemic, the condition can happen with the absence of any physical touch; it doesn’t have to be COVID-19 related. When you aren’t able to receive enough physical contact, you can become stressed, anxious or depressed. As a response, your body can produce a hormone called cortisol, which can cause your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate to increase.
However, there can be clinical solutions and approaches to help alleviate touch starvation, such as touch therapy. According to Chantée Dardaine, MA, registered psychotherapist and founder of SelfCareTo, the practice involves using touch to promote relaxation, reduce stress, relieve pain, and improve overall well-being. “Touch therapy is a hands-on approach to help regulate, relax, and restore the body to activate healing. Touch therapy boosts connection not only with others but within ourselves. This type of therapy can be used to help individuals who’ve experienced trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns,” Dardaine tells ESSENCE.
She suggests that there are different ways one can practice and incorporate touch therapy in their daily lives, such as massage therapy, reiki, Therapeutic touch (TT) and Healing touch (HT), self-touch, acupuncture, and somatic body-based healing practices.
Nowadays, physical contact and human connection are more important than ever. Ashley Brodeur, a registered psychotherapist and yoga teacher, has dedicated 13 years of her life to rewriting the narrative around touch therapy, as some people may be familiar with touch taboos or how touch can be used to harm (assault, sexual abuse). She believes that touch therapy practices can help you ground yourself. “Touch can bring you back into your body. COVID-19 brought mental health to the forefront. Anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation have increased. Touch is a way to support and regulate our nervous systems,” she states.
Brodeur continues, “I believe touch can help us increase our capacity for discomfort. As a therapist, I believe many people could benefit from increased touch from safe, loved ones. A friend, a partner, or a parent can offer so much relief to someone struggling. I think that when we invite touch, and we increase our touch literacy, we increase our ability to connect as humans.”
The Benefits of Touch Therapy
As we begin to heal from the emotional trauma of COVID-19, so will our bodies. According to Dardaine, our nervous system responds to external and internal stimuli that either activate us or helps us rest. These two states are our sympathetic nervous systems (fight and flight) and parasympathetic systems (rest and digest).
“How we cope and get into our parasympathetic nervous system comes from within and others. When we regulate ourselves, it comes with self-soothing tools and internal dialogue, but when we begin to regulate with others, we learn vulnerability, trust, and community,” she shares.
Dardaine adds, “We can all think of a time when we received a hug when we felt overwhelmed; the body can sense the other person’s energy. That exchange allows us to lower our heart rate and connect to the present moment. This exchange is what happens with touch therapy.”
Our human need is community and connection. Recovering from COVID-19 is realizing the desire for touch may be limited, but the need for it is still there. It is an opportunity to reconnect with yourself through the guidance of another; it also provides the opportunity to not feel alone in your experience.
The Ability to Heal
Dardaine believes touch therapy can support you through depression, isolation, and anxiety. Practicing touch therapy with a trained therapist can help individuals experiencing loneliness or isolation feel more connected to themselves and others.
Physical touch promotes feelings of warmth, comfort, and safety – ultimately reducing stress and anxiety while increasing relaxation and embodiment.
She encourages patients to seek alternative ways of healing to achieve wellness. “A touch therapy practice, such as massage therapy, has been shown to promote the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural feel-good hormones. This can help individuals feel more at ease and connected to their bodies, promoting self-awareness and self-acceptance,” she says.
Touch Therapy and Black Women
Touch therapy allows individuals to lean into vulnerability based on a strong therapeutic relationship, consent, and guidance. Dardaine references the discourse of not feeling worthy when working with clients through racial and cultural trauma.
“Black women have spoken to me about living out the narrative of always having to be strong. Touch therapy offers an opportunity to land softly in your body and experience a gentle, loving, compassionate way to move through discomfort. For some, it may be the first time they learned to receive those signals and messages just through touch,” she says.
Dardaine continues, “As Black women, we carry generations of stories in our bodies; learning to reconnect to the self through touch offers a way to heal from the heart by connecting to ancestral practices rooted in finding power and strength within their bodies. A beautiful reminder is that our ancestors left us tools, and we must slow down, take a breath, place one hand on the belly, one hand on the heart and surrender to ourselves.”
Ways to Practice Touch Therapy
- Some ways to explore self-touch are through self-massage, breathwork exercises like belly breathing, aromatherapy oils, emotional freedom tapping technique, and body scans with touch.
- You can try the hugging technique with your partner, trusted friends, and family, where you are held by someone else for 30 seconds and notice how the body starts to release and synchronize with the other person.
- See a trained touch therapist who can offer gentle touch to welcome relaxation and teach you how to discern how your body communicates. It also helps you notice when you’re in an activated state vs. a rested state.
- Get massage therapy from a trauma-informed therapist who can utilize different techniques to help soften areas of the body holding tension so you can reconnect to your body.
Touch therapy provides a unique opportunity to connect with your body differently and explore trauma outside of the use of words. The practice can invite us back into our bodies and away from the thoughts of shame, allowing us to experience ourselves differently, improve our intuition and teach us to listen to how our body communicates with us to understand our needs better.