Health

Good Mental Health: Are You Touch-Starved?

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Over the fall I decided I had to be single for a while. While reluctant, I knew it was best, as I had some serious studying to do to become licensed in my field - and men (because of my zest for them) proved to be too much of a distraction. So I gave them up, short-term.

Strange to say, this wasn’t the hardest thing to do. I have lived most of my life single. I have found that truly ecstatic relationships are not super common. I enjoyed harnessing my energies so I could study, and was rewarded as I passed several of the licensing tests (there are too many). 

About a month after living the single life, I noticed my health started to suffer. Specifically, I started experiencing severe insomnia. This was unusual because I am famous for my sound sleep. I am known to lay my head down at night, and the next thing I know I wake up at daybreak. I have even participated in sleep studies, only to be told I have perfect sleep. I never could understand jetlag, as I easily adjust to the new time zone wherever I go. 

To help me sleep, I started taking Chinese herbs.  his didn’t work, so I tried acupuncture. Soon I moved to Western herbs (Valerian root), which helped if I took it more than an hour before I went to bed. After three weeks this stopped working, and I had to look for others solutions. 

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I investigated neurochemical reasons, diet changes, parasites, hormonal changes…. Nothing could account for my ongoing insomnia. I taught several weekly cardio classes (along with yoga and pilates), which I had done for years, so I knew I was getting the exercise I needed.  Nothing had changed in my diet.  I didn’t have abnormal stress. What could account for this change in sleep pattern?

One day, while talking with a friend, I wondered aloud when was the last time I was touched. I couldn’t remember when I had last snuggled with someone, had my hand held, or an arm wrapped around my shoulder. It had been so long since I’d been touched, that even a hug from a friend felt foreign. I realized that I yearned to be held; I felt empty and depleted inside.

I also noticed that my energy had been fluctuating in an uncharacteristic way, leaving me less able to give as much love and energy to my friends and family. A female friend, with whom I discussed this, said that she noticed that when she is not cuddled for a month, she becomes angry and resentful towards men, decreasing her future chances of being intimate with them. 

Just after this conversation, an opportunity arose for a guy friend to come over that evening. I made sure we snuggled for an hour, just chatting about our day. I thought, “I’m going to sleep well tonight!” and voilà. For the first time in three months, sleep encompassed me the moment I lay down, and I awoke refreshed. I did not have a desire for sexual relations with my new snuggle buddy, and made that clear. So the space was clear for us to comfort each other with no other agendas. The next day, we watched a movie and cuddled. I felt fantastic for weeks. (He traveled to South America shortly afterward.)

Now don’t get me wrong: Being single has major advantages. As a single person, I get to choose what I do and when I do it, without being accountable to anyone. I thoroughly enjoy being able to go out when I want, come home as late as I like, eat when I’m hungry, and travel whenever I wish.  I love the freedom and independence. 

I decided to check in with several single male friends. Did they experience the same depletion from lack of female touch? Might they too be…wilting? I inquired if (in their depleted state) would they trade sex for cuddling?  Almost always I got—with no hesitation—a “Yes!’”

What could account for the fact that touch was so magical and potent? Why had the lack of touch left me feeling weak and depleted? How could it have affected my health so much? The answer may lie in a hormone called oxytocin, sometimes called “the cuddle chemical.” It is released in connection with affectionate touch and has many benefits, chief among them (from my perspective) is countering the effects of stress.

About a month later I met a man with whom I had a true heart connection. As I felt desired, and received much-needed doses of oxytocin from touch and cuddling, I watched my energy balance out. In fact, I had more energy than I’d had in months. I felt more motivated to exercise, dance and heal. Even my body—while still feminine—seemed to firm up in all the right places, and soften in others.  Slight aches and pains evaporated, and I felt healthier and more alive than I had in months.  I had plenty of compassion for friends and family when needed. Above all, I slept like a baby.

I began to notice that when men have been “under-touched” for a while they tend to suffer other reactions, different from women.  Some become aggressive or otherwise inappropriate with women. Their desires, improperly expressed, seem to push out of their bodies too hard.  Some travel inward and become less social, or, perhaps to balance out the missing female energies, actually become more feminine themselves.

Just as men are often not attracted to women who are feeling uncharacteristically needy due to lack of touch, we are often not attracted to these men whose energies are off balance. They give us the heebie-jeebies. They need feminine energy. They are depleted. Yet if we are too depleted ourselves (because we are not getting what we need), the situation becomes a Catch 22. Attempts to break out of it can be embarrassing. I myself have come on way too strong to men when I’m feeling needy. In contrast, when I feel like myself, I’m more than adequate in attracting mates.

What are some coping skills for those who are single and have not yet found that person with whom they can exchange oxytocin-producing behaviors?

Masturbation is a popular one, but it is just a short-term fix. It doesn’t offer the deeper nourishment I’m writing about. Too much, and it also has the potential to become an impediment to real relationships, a risk I’ll take up in a future article, ‘the Masturbation Myth’.

Here are the coping tactics that have worked for me (and others) in the absence of a lover:

Cuddle buddies can be a fantastic outlet for satisfying our need for touch.  It is crazy that we are walking around hungry when being fed is free and abundant.  Let’s start a cuddle buddy revolution!  I actually have a male friend with whom I have sleepover pajama parties.  We have dinner, laugh, cuddle, sleep, have breakfast, and remain excellent friends. Can you think of someone with whom you could cultivate this kind of connection?

Recently I noticed that as I touched the back of an acupuncture patient, his energy seemed to soak up my touch like a sponge.  He is a delightful man. I advised him to get a cuddle buddy, but he didn’t.  He continued to get better for a short period after each session—and then regress. Finally, I told him that if he wanted to heal fully, he should make it a point to receive touch regularly.  I suggested he call up an old friend, tell her that he was looking for a cuddle buddy, promise to respect all boundaries she proposed, and to exchange only affectionate touch.  This worked, and I haven’t seen him since.  We keep in touch, and he is thriving.

Similarly, I met a man who had an agreement with a woman he was dating. They both knew that they weren’t ultimately “right” for each other. They agreed to an open relationship for the purpose of finding their true mates in the long run. They avoided going out in the world as needy, single people. He explained, “I think men get off their game if they haven’t dated in a while.” His energy was balanced, he was able to focus on fulfilling his life’s purpose, and enjoy life. Meeting new women was effortless for him, as he was an altogether healthy and easy-going man.  When he did meet a new woman with mate-potential, he didn’t feel the need to rush into bed and trash the opportunity to develop true intimacy.

Massages are another healthy coping strategy when we’re touch-starved.  It safely brings energy back into the body. For my single girl-friends, I recommend receiving massages from men. Men who have gone through massage therapy school usually have very strong boundaries, and are superb for providing healing touch. This is the easiest way to receive masculine energy in a safe environment. 

Tantric massage is helpful to clear the energy channels. However, remember that Tantric massage’s purpose is not orgasm, but rather freeing your energy to flow harmoniously throughout the body. I’ve offered Tantric massage to friends who needed touch, and they commented that being able to harness their energy after a genital massage (without orgasm) energized and empowered them. One man even told me that he saw colors that day that he never knew existed.

Finally, be joyous when the opposite sex is around. I have noticed more and more how people try not to need each other. Even masturbation seems to shout, “SEE?!? I didn’t need you anyway; I can pleasure MYSELF!” Don’t try NOT to need others. Admit it; we do need people in our lives!  Back in the day, we lived in tribes without the vast social separation we experience these days.  Open your arms and heart at every opportunity. Nourish others, green and slimy though they may appear. You may discover your Prince Charming – or your Princess - was just sporting a frog outfit due to a temporary lack of touch.