Don’t Touch Me! A Guide to Understanding Touch Aversion & Tactile Sensitivity
Some things in life are hard to understand, and as a result, nobody really talks about them. Aversion to touch is one of these and is often misunderstood by those who experience it and those who know them. Sufferers may feel confused and ashamed and not understand why they don't want to be touched.
When you don't want to be touched by your significant other, your family, children or friends, it can be extremely difficult. Why you're experiencing this aversion is often the most pressing question. The other question is what can be done about it.
Here we look at many possible explanations for not wanting to be touched and give you some suggestions for how to deal with it.
What Is Touch Aversion?
There's no simple answer to this question but essentially touch aversion is a dislike, or in some cases a fear, of being touched. The severity of the condition can range from mild dislike all the way through to a total abhorrence of being touched. At the extreme end, it's a phobia called haphephobia.
Some important things to note are:
- It can be a lifelong condition, it can be intermittent or it can be temporary.
- There may be obvious reasons for the aversion (e.g. previous sexual assault) or it can come seemingly out of the blue.
- Touch aversion can center on one person, some people, one gender, or it can extend to all people.
- In many cases it seems to be a temporary condition that occurs during pregnancy, during breastfeeding and while caring for young children.
- When directed at one person only (your significant other) it can be an expression of anger and unresolved issues with that person.
- It can be part of a wider condition such as autism or Asperger's (when it's normally called tactile sensitivity) or it can be a condition on its own.
- It can be part of a social phobia (called haphephobia).
- It can be part of an anxiety disorder such as OCD.
- The touch of inanimate objects such as clothing, food and certain textures can also be very problematic for those with a type of touch aversion called sensory processing disorder.
- It can be upsetting for the person affected, but also those who are close to them. People close to the sufferer can feel rejected as a result, and in severe cases, it can completely destroy relationships due to a lack of intimacy.
Is It the Same as Tactile Sensitivity?
You might see touch aversion referred to as tactile sensitivity and wonder if they're different conditions. They're actually different descriptions for the same thing though the phrase tactile sensitivity (and sometimes tactile defensiveness) is more often used when talking about children with sensory processing issues. Sensory processing problems can be a stand alone condition or as part of a wider condition such as autism.
How touch aversion is experienced and expressed is highly individual so it's impossible to give a completely comprehensive list of symptoms, but the list below provides the most common ones.
One person might display only one of the symptoms whereas another person might experience all of them. This doesn’t tell us about the intensity or severity of the symptoms though.
The most common symptoms of touch aversion are:
- Being extremely sensitive to touch
- Sensitivity to movement, out of fear of being touched as a result of that movement
- Going out of the way to avoid affection, such as hugs – the person might not just find this upsetting or unpleasant, they may also find it actually physically painful
- A dislike of certain smells, sounds, textures etc, which are normally not intolerable
- Either hyperactive, or can be the opposite and be hypoactive
- Can be a symptom of autism, Asperger's or dyspraxia
- Difficulty relaxing and often stressed out
- Often quite clumsy, always dropping tings and being quite awkward physically
- Finds certain movements upsetting, such as sudden turns or drops, e.g. driving on a bendy road or on a rollercoaster
- Problems waking and getting started with that day’s jobs or tasks
- Problems with relationships and friendships
- Anger management problems
- Irritability and annoyance
- Often combined with anxiety and depression
- Hand washing or changing clothes after being touched
- Can be quite withdrawn socially
- Can use medication or other substances to help them relax in social situations
In a situation when being touched is imminent, a person suffering from touch aversion is likely to freeze up, run away, cry, shake, or sweat. For that reason, any situation which could lead to being touched is often avoided.
Causes of Touch Aversion
We’ve talked about what touch aversion is and we’ve covered the symptoms, but now, we need to talk about some of the potential causes for the condition. Remember, this is a personal thing, as much as the symptoms are personal too.
That means that your particular cause for developing touch aversion could be totally different to the things we’re going to talk about next. For the sake of completeness, however, there are some very common triggers and causes for the condition to develop.
1. Sensory Processing Issues
We touched upon this in our last section, and we mentioned that this is a disorder in which the brain has issues dealing with information coming in and out. As a result sensitivities to the environment and actions going on around them can occur.
2. Autism Spectrum Disorders
There is a strong link between autism and Asperger's and sensory processing issues. Those who have been diagnosed with autism or Asperger's will normally have at least some sensory processing issues. They can related to other senses though and not necessarily the sense of touch.
3. Mental Health Problems
Touch aversion can be a symptom of a mental health problem. For instance someone who has OCD may not want to be touched because they're fearful of germs or dirt. Those with social anxiety disorders have trouble relating to others and may find touch very psychologically uncomfortable. Touch aversion can be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorders and depression as well.
4. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
The influx of hormones can alter the way the brain deals with information, kick-starting either a short-lived episode of touch aversion, or one that is longer lasting. Many women who breastfeed and/or have young children talk about being "touched out" where they simply feel overwhelmed by being touched so much.
5. Relationship Problems
When we're angry with our significant other one very clear way of showing that is to avoid touching them and avoid intimacy with them. We may feel disgusted or "creeped out" when they try to touch us.
6. Chronic Pain Issues
Anyone suffering with chronic physical pain issues, such as neuropathy, is at a higher risk of experiencing touch aversion. This is because the brain is doing all it can to protect the person from feeling more pain than they already are. This leads to a sensory processing disorder type of problem. The pain overloads the persons sensory system and they can't deal with any further stimulus.
Whilst being asexual doesn’t automatically mean touch aversion will come into play, it can be something which is experienced. This might not be to the point where pain or extreme discomfort is experienced, but a severe dislike of being touched, such as hugging, is sometimes the case.
8. Previous Trauma or Abuse
There is a very strong link between some types of touch aversion and those who have experienced trauma or abuse. This doesn’t have to be a recent event, and can also be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. The most common event for touch aversion to be linked to is sexual abuse or a traumatic event linked to intimacy.
How Does Aversion to Touch Affect Relationships?
You don’t have to be an expert on touch aversion to realize that it can be extremely damaging for relationships. Not wanting to be touched can lead to the other person feeling rejected, and a lack of intimacy is enough to ruin a relationship before it even starts.
Of course, this isn’t the case for all relationships which are affected by touch aversion. An understanding partner is vital, but on the whole, being in a relationship with someone who won’t allow you to touch them, and who cringes or looks scared when it looks like you might reach out for a hug, can be extremely difficult for even the most understanding of partners.
Therapies That Can Help
Now we know about the causes of touch aversion and we’ve gone over a lot of ground about what it is and how it feels/the symptoms, it’s time to move towards the brighter side of things, and talk about how treatment and therapies can help solve the problem over time.
Remember, this is often a deep-seated condition, something which has cemented over a period of time, so it makes sense to say that it is not going to disappear over night. However, with plenty of effort and dedication to conquering the condition in many cases it can be done.
It's important to discover and target the root cause of the issue, so if it is down to a previous trauma or abuse, then counselling to address that event will be the key to unlocking progress. It is thought that the success rate of treatment for some types of touch aversion is high, at around 90%, so that should give you some real hope.
The main therapies for touch aversion are:
Counselling and Psychotherapy
This will revolve around identifying the trigger and the core cause. We just mentioned that those who have experienced trauma or abuse in the past will benefit the most from this type of treatment route, because it works to identify and get to the real heart of the problem.
By addressing the cause, the actual symptoms of touch aversion can be solved in may cases. Psychotherapy which encompasses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) exercises can help to change the way you think and behave, and works to right or at least improve social phobias such as touch aversion.
Talking to your Significant Other
Of course, if you are in a relationship and you have an issue with touching or being touched, it is vital to communicate with your partner. If you fail to do this, they are simply going to think that you either don’t find them attractive, or you don’t care for them. This can be devastating to deal with, especially when it isn’t actually the truth.
Talk to your partner about what you’re experiencing and the way it feels. If you're feeling touched out let them know. Having the support of the person you’re closest to will give you the strength to seek out other therapies, to help you deal with the problem and get to the root of it. By having this support, you have a much better chance of conquering touch aversion.
If your touch aversion is down to a sensory processing issue (either as part of an autistic spectrum disorder or as a stand alone disorder) then occupational therapy has been found to be very effective.
This involves tactile stimulation of the senses and the brain, to build up strength and ‘re-wire’ thought processes and mental strength. This can be through weight bearing exercises and a wide range of sensory stimulation exercises. This also includes building up to touch-related situations, within a safe and controlled environment.
One size doesn’t fit all when finding a suitable therapy for touch aversion, but identifying the cause and then tailoring the treatment method to that, is very successful.
Take Charge of Your Recovery
Touch aversion is an unpleasant and misunderstood condition. The reasons for developing it are wide-ranging and they don’t make sense to a lot of people, including those suffering from it. It can lead to depression and anxiety and many relationship problems.
I hope this guide has given you all the information you need about aversion to being touch and given you some answers as to why it might be happening to you.
Remember, seeking help is always the first step towards recovery. Talking to those close to you is also a vital ingredient. From there you can look forward to a much brighter future.