Too little touch, hugs, caresses and intimacy can lead to skin hunger, a phenomena which literally means that the skin is hungry for touch, but which is also an expression of a deeper longing for caring, closeness and love.
One of the most famous experiments on the significance of skin hunger took place back in the 1950’s when the psychologist Harry Harlow took baby monkeys from their mothers shortly after birth and placed them in cages with “surrogate mothers” made from wire. One of the wire mothers was providing food and the other wire mother was covered with a material so it was soft to the touch.
The little monkeys spent all their time with the soft mother and only went to the wire mother, when they were hungry. As part of the experiment there were also some baby monkeys who were put in a cage with only the wire mother and as much food available as they could eat and here a dramatic difference appeared. The baby monkeys were already not in the best of mental health, but the monkeys who only received food and were lacking even the simulation of touch started to show signs of persistently increased anxiety levels and stress and the apparently lacked the ability to calm themselves, much more than the monkeys who had both a wire surrogate mother providing food and a soft surrogate mother they could cuddle up with the rest of the time.
It was not a very ethical experiment by modern standards and nowadays we would consider it animal abuse, but it was among the first scientific evidence of the importance of touch. We became aware that we need more than food, water and a roof over our heads in order to thrive and not only survive. Something goes wrong in our development if we don’t get enough touch and this is valid for human children as well as baby monkeys. And the genuine need for touch doesn’t go away because we grow older and become adults.
The longing for Touch during Corona
Human beings need the kind of nourishment that touch brings, we need love and human contact, we need to feel seen and accepted. We need caring. We need to know that we are not alone and that fundamentally all will be well. Through touch we are able to communicate such profound things. If we suffer from touch deprivation then we will also see the appearance of “deficiency diseases”, initially felt as a deep emotional need and reduced quality of life, but skin hunger can even generate physiological problems.
The requirements of keeping distance from others and prolonged isolation come at significant cost for mental health. It creates stress, aggression, anxiety and depression. Some people become irritable and violent, others loose the spark of life.
In the Nordic countries we are already not touching each other much in our social interaction with each other. Often it stays with a hand shake or a one second hug, until corona also put an end to that. Even in couple relationships there is not always as much touch and intimacy as we really need. It’s not necessarily prioritised when you also have to work, take care of children, make dinner, watch tv, meet friends, watch tv. Intimacy and lovemaking is reduced to quick sex with very little relaxed togetherness and exploring each other through touch. It becomes about chasing pleasure and orgasm. Imagine if you would make dinner in the same way, half cooked and perhaps slightly burned because you didn’t pay enough attention, without putting love into it, an even after you manage to cook something, then you only eat a tiny bit of what is there, though you’re actually quite hungry and you need the nourishment.
Touch and intimacy are genuine and profound human needs, we need it just like we need to eat and to sleep, but often we don’t recognise our skin hunger for what it is, we don’t take it as serious as we would, if we hadn’t eaten in three days. We just feel that something is not quite right.
How do you know that you are suffering from skin hunger?
There is a long list of symptoms which can indicate skin hunger:
- The feeling that something is lacking
- Aggressive behaviour
- Relationship problems
- Lack of hygiene
- Escapist coping mechanisms such as alcohols, drugs or endlessly staring at your phone
- Sexualised behaviour
You may also spend more time with pets or unconsciously doing things which simulate touch, like spending more time under the hot water in the shower or wrapping yourself with blankets. Paradoxically skin hunger can also lead to withdrawal from touch and connection, you might experience it as uncomfortable or even painful.
Touch and hormones
Our skin is our largest organ with a surface area of 1.5 m2. When we give and receive touch our body is producing oxytocin, a hormone which reduces stress and creates the feeling of connection, relaxation, contentment, happiness and security. Even hugging for just 20 seconds will release oxytocin in your body.
Touch stimulates pressure receptors under the skin, which carries signals to the vagus nerve that connects the brain with the rest of the body. The vagus nerve uses these signals to make our nervous system relax, lower the heart rate and blood pressure and dampen the activity of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Being touched also triggers neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which regulates pleasure and serotonin, which is often associated with feelings of well-being and happiness.
When you don’t give and receive enough touch, then the vagus nerve doesn’t calm the body to lower the heart rate and blood pressure; cortisol with its immune-destroying power is not kept in check; and serotonin and dopamine do not kick in to regulate our mood and emotional state. If touching helps keep a person healthy and happy, then lack of it can literally make people sick.
In the Tantra Temple, we clearly see the profound effects of touch, especially “conscious touch”, where there is an emphasis on being fully present. There is a big difference between conscious touch and “doing something” while your head is somewhere else and filled with random thoughts, fx giving or receiving a shoulder massage while watching TV. It doesn’t have the same impact or create the same soul intimacy. Conscious touch removes the distance between us, creates contact and feels deeply satisfying.
Tantra massage is more than just physical touch. It is a long, nourishing, healing, intimate massage with conscious touch. Conscious touch is a method of entering the present moment, by being fully present in the sensorial perceptions, following with your awareness the light strokes, pressures, stretches and other types of touch during the massage. It takes us into deeper layers of ourselves, much more than a regular physiological massage.
“I think tantra massage is different from previous traditional massages I have received, because there is more focus on being aware in all the touch sensations. It helped me to ‘get out of my head’ and be completely present and relaxed during the massage. When I left the Tantra Temple, I felt an inner peace that I rarely experience in my daily life.” Man, 30 years.
Awakening of the senses
When you are completely present while touching and being touched, aware of the skin to skin contact and how the touch moves across the body, you make your senses come alive. It’s like eating a deliciously fragrant meal. By inhaling the scent, tasting every single bite and feeling how the food feels in the body, the senses are sharpened to a much greater degree than if we simply swallowed the food without either tasting or smelling it. The senses are like a gate that opens to our inner universe when stimulated – and we are aware of it. We go from being in the head, to feeling our body and being in contact with deeper aspects of ourselves and our emotions.
“Our senses are like entry ways, through which we explore the outer world and express our inner world. The more we awaken our senses and discover ourselves, the more we can explore and express our true nature. Especially for women, this is a great way to live, which leads to greater trust and self-confidence, deep inner freedom and harmony with our surroundings.” Woman, 50 years.
The deeper contact leads to a greater understanding of ourselves and a sense of getting closer to yourself. After a tantric massage, many people experience an indescribable joy, more love for themselves, inner surplus and renewed energy. They feel regenerated and recharged. The effects are not something the masseur gives, but something that is awakened from within the one receiving, and it is not a subtle difference, but quite obvious: When you look in the mirror afterwards, your face looks rejuvenated, you glow from the inside and there is a big smile on your lips.
During the massage I felt waves of extreme and perfect pleasure, sorrow, letting go and sometimes peace. The feeling after the massage made me want to go deeper into the experience. I came out of the temple and walked through the park, overwhelmed by the peace and beauty around me. I had to sit for a moment with all my senses amplified. It felt like breathing together with all the nature around me, and everything, pain as well as pleasure, felt absolutely perfect and as it should be. Sparks from this experience have been with me ever since and I am deeply grateful”. Woman, 43 years.
Touch in the Temple of Tantra
In the Tantra Temple, we focus on the deeper effect of touch and we create a safe space where you can relax, let go and open up to receive. The massage is adapted to the individual guest’s needs, wishes and state of mind.
In order to prepare to meet people in such a profound and intimate way, the training for tantra masseur in the Tantra Temple involves much more than just learning the right massage techniques. The masseurs receive training in empathy, the art of giving, setting boundaries, sublime eroticism, love and much more. All the masseurs in the Tantra Temple are also dedicated to a serious daily tantric practice of yoga and meditation, and they have studied tantric philosophy and self-development for several years. This helps to reinforce inner states of compassion, empathy and love which is a foundation for creating the space and the trust that is needed. The masseurs are training being fully present with themselves, so that they can also be fully present with another person, this helps the guest to have a deeper and more enriching experience and the masseur is an active participant in this process. No matter what issues we are dealing with, our goal is to help people get to get in touch with themselves, rather than just providing a nice experience.
“The feeling of trust and feeling safe makes me dare to feel the emotions that show up along the way. These are sometimes unpleasant feelings, such as anger, hatred and anxiety. Other times it is feelings of ecstasy, joy and love. I can feel that the masseur can embrace me with all my emotions, and that makes me feel safe.” – Woman, 36 years.
The erotic energy
The erotic part of a tantra massage allows us to open up and discover hidden inner treasures that we didn’t know we had in us or that we have suppressed, often due to guilt and shame. In tantra we become aware of the difference between “sexual” and “erotic” and a tantra massage is far from a sexual experience, where the goal is most often pleasure. In a tantra massage pleasure is a part of the experience but it functions as a door opener to deep and profound experiences that involve our entire being. In short, sexual energy is an impulse and a desire that is goal oriented, it drives us towards getting satisfaction and yet that satisfaction is short-lived and rarely as satisfying as we had hoped. We often become tense, contracted and loose the feeling of connection in the hunt for pleasure.
The erotic energy is an awakening force, it makes us relax and expand into the experience, so we can explore and stay with it for hours, without feeling any rush. The erotic energy takes us into the present moment, into being-ness, out of the mind and into pure consciousness. The more we bring consciousness into our experiences, we start to move from superficial sensations into profound states. The erotic energy takes us out of our comfort zone and what we might call the ego. Many people experience this difference during the massage, without being able to put a finger on what it is. Some bring this new awareness home, exploring it both with themselves and their loved ones. A tantra massage can therefore profoundly change your erotic life, bringing more intimacy, closeness, connection and playful exploration , giving plenty of time and space for each other.
“It is so important what you are doing. Every time we come here, all our daily routines and chores are suddenly not important. When we are here, our relationship and our deep connection suddenly mean a lot more. And from time to time we need that impulse in our relationship, to reunite with the deeper connection between us, so that it is not just children, work and daily routines that fill life. What you do is so valuable to us, and you do it really well and with so much love”. Couple, 52 years.
Conscious touch and profound emotional intimacy are the best way to satisfy your skin hunger. A tantra massage is an abundant feast that completely recharges us, but as long as society and the Tantra Temple are under lockdown, we highly recommend that you find one to exchange touch with who is open to hugs, cuddling or shoulder massage. If you are alone, you can even perform self-massage, where you touch yourself over a larger surface of the body. This will also release oxytocin, even though it’s your own hands and it’s a surprisingly effective way to relieve skin hunger.