We've surely learned a lot in the last 18 months about what soothes us when we're sad, anxious or frustrated, but there's one thing that all the banana bread, Netflix shows and walks in the park can't totally cure, and that's touch starvation.
Also known as "skin hunger", this neurological phenomenon is the result of little to no tactile contact, and has been rife since the start of the pandemic. Psychotherapist Rachel Cooke joined the Jennifer Zamparelli show on 2FM to talk about this often debilitating condition.
"We have a biological need for touch and this has been turbocharged by the pandemic and all the ways that it's changed touch", she says. "We're also living in an increasingly technology-focused, socially disconnected world so we're touching each other much less than before.
"We feel skin hunger when we notice a discrepancy between the amount of touch that we want, and the amount of touch that we're actually getting. The signals are very similar to regular food hunger, we notice it when we're not getting enough."
So how do you spot it? Just like when your body is missing food or sleep, touch starvation shows as difficulty sleeping, feeling "empty, hopeless or worthless, lack of enjoyment", she says. "Your brain just never stops, you feel really anxious and you're constantly thinking."
It's no wonder our bodies react so viscerally to a lack of touch, given it's an essential part of human development right into old age. "Touch is why babies in neonatal intensive care units are placed on their parents' naked chests, it's the reason that prisoners in solitary confinement often report craving human contact as much as being free", Cooke says.
"When you touch the skin it simulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to something called the vagus nerve in the brain. It slows down the nervous system, the heart rate, blood pressure decreases, brain waves show relaxation, levels of stress hormones such as cortisol decrease and touch also increases oxytocin, which is a love hormone, which is released during sex and childbirth.
"We particularly need touch in childhood, it's almost as powerful as the basic necessities as food and water. Without touch, we deteriorate very very quickly. Our brains and nervous systems are designed to make it a pleasant experience, because we're social animals."
Socialising has changed dramatically in the last year and a half, and even with some restrictions easing, we've a long way to go yet before we're back to normal. For people living alone, Cooke says, "it's been desperate".
"People previously who were pretty happily living alone, I've seen people have really descend into being severely depressed and anxious from having so little touch where before it might have been hugs here and there, petting people's dogs, babies."
"We haven't evolved past needing touch", she adds, so even if we're "cognitively okay" with living alone, we still see the impact of living alone.
Historically men have suffered from a lack of touch, as they have "traditionally, societally been allowed touch through sports to a degree, partners and a little bit their kids". They've also only been allowed to experience the intimacy of touch through sex, she says.
"One in five men have no close friends, possibly even more than that. Men have not been allowed or encouraged to have touch outside of sex, so understandably often their need for touch gets channelled into sex."
Even people who don't like being touched too much can be touch starved, she says. "That can be to do with some people who are on the autistic spectrum or certain kinds of neuro-divergents. It's almost no one who's going to want no touch at all. It might just be that in certain situations someone might need more of a sense of trust or a set-up of a situation in order to give or receive touch."
So how do you soothe touch starvation? First of all, it doesn't have to be with other people, Cooke says. "Pets are a big one, touching a pet whether that's your own or one that you borrow or someone else's."
Masturbation is another way to help, as well as massage, "whether that's paying for a massage when that's allowed based on the restrictions, but you can also massage yourself". Cooke also suggests having long baths, exfoliating, wrapping yourself up in blankets, getting your nails and hair done.
Those in relationships or marriages aren't adverse, either, as Cooke says she's seen it emerge "when people are starting to feel disconnected from each other or resentful, maybe they've been arguing a lot".
"Very rarely you're going to find that people have the exact same needs for touch. This can change over time, it could be to do with the amount of stress they're experiencing, hormones, being touched out from having children where you might normally be a very affectionate person but if you have a child hanging out of your boob all day, you're probably not going to want to be touched so much by your partner."
Listen back to the full interview above or by clicking here.