We all have our own boundaries and comfort levels when it comes to physical contact. Some people love it, others hate, and some can take it or leave it. This is all normal, and no one should feel like their own boundaries are being crossed or disrespected, no matter what their comfort level happens to be.
However, if you feel like your aversion to being touched is especially intense, it’s natural to wonder what the underlying cause might be—especially if you feel that your discomfort is interfering in your life or social and romantic relationships. If you’re becoming distressed over how normal your aversion is, or if it is starting to affect your mental health or relationships with those around you, it might be time to seek answers.
Could it be OCD? Yes, possibly—we’ll go into greater detail later. But there could also be many other issues at play, including things like trauma and even the culture that you grew up in. We spoke with Dr. Mia Nuñez, licensed clinical psychologist and Regional Clinical Director at NOCD, to understand some of the reasons that you might feel so averse to being touched, as well as what you can do to get help if you feel as if your fear or disgust about being touched is impacting you negatively.
Why people hate physical touch: possible explanations
Touch is an important means of communication between humans, and it can often be a source of comfort and bonding. However, not everyone likes to be touched. In fact, these people may feel intensely uncomfortable or anxious in response to any physical contact or even proximity.
Dr. Nuñez explains that there are several common reasons that someone might feel uncomfortable with touch, including trauma and bad experiences in their past. “If somebody’s been assaulted in some way or harmed by another person, then being touched could bring up reminders of that event and cause severe distress,” she says.
Similarly, an aversion to touch is also commonly seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to traumatic interactions with other people. People with PTSD may experience intense recollections around their trauma, increasing their fear and subsequent reactions to things like touch.
There’s even an actual phobia around touch called haphephobia. Like other phobias, haphephobia is an extreme, irrational fear of touch by another person. Some people with phobias experience reactions so extreme that they can even manifest in physical symptoms like panic attacks and hyperventilation upon being subjected to their fears. Phobias can sometimes manifest as a result of trauma or bad experiences as well, though there may also be other factors like genetics that play a role in their development.
In addition to negative experiences, a fear or dislike of touch can also sometimes be linked to anxiety. In particular, people with social anxiety may have a hard time being around other people and being touched by them.
It’s also fairly common for people with body dysmorphia or body image issues to not enjoy being touched by other people. Dr. Nuñez says, “Body image distress is also pretty frequent, including issues like eating disorders. If you’re unhappy or even ashamed about the size or shape of your body, you might not want people touching you.”
“Another reason some people do not enjoy touch could be related to sensory processing sensitivities, such as those found in some people with Autism. Physical touch could be over-stimulating to some, and may need to be planned & approached very intentionally,” explains therapist April Kilduff, MA, MCPC, LMHC.
Another explanation may be as simple as your background and how you were raised—and how your boundaries were formed in response. For example, someone who was raised in a very “hands-off” family that didn’t often hug or express their emotions through touch might feel uncomfortable around someone who grew up with hugging and other friendly touching among their family and friend groups.
It’s important to note here that there is also a cultural component involved. Some cultures tend to be much touchier than others, which can contribute to discomfort in cross-cultural interactions. This point was highlighted by psychologist Sidney Jourard, who conducted a famous observational study in the 1960s where he observed friends in coffee shops throughout the world to see the frequency with which they used friendly touch during their conversations. While watching American friends, he saw that they only touched about twice during their conversation. But in France, friends touched each other up to 110 times an hour, and in Puerto Rico, the number shot up to a whopping 180 times. In cases like this, someone who grew up in a culture that does not frequently use touch as a regular means of communication might be thrown off by people who grew up in a more physically expressive culture.
Finally, there is also the possibility that a fear of being touched may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is often portrayed in the media as no more than an extreme preference for cleanliness or “germophobia,” but there is much more to this potential explanation.
OCD and fear of touch, explained
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a serious, often debilitating mental health disorder. Someone with OCD will have obsessions, or persistent intrusive, distressing thoughts and feelings. To cope with the extreme distress that these obsessions bring about, they turn to compulsions: ritualistic, often repetitive actions or mental behaviors that are meant to alleviate that extreme anxiety and/or prevent something unwanted from happening.
There are countless different subtypes of OCD extending far beyond the well-known themes of cleanliness, symmetry, and perfectionism, each centering on different subjects and topics that bring fear and anxiety. As it turns out, the fear of touch can be linked to several different subtypes of OCD, including one of its most well-recognized forms: Contamination OCD. People with Contamination OCD will have obsessive thoughts and fears around contamination and health concerns, which can commonly manifest in an extreme fear of touching or being touched by other people to prevent becoming “dirty” or receiving and spreading germs.
In addition to extreme concerns about transferring germs, disease, and other contaminants, people’s fears often involve an element of emotional contamination that can make someone with OCD afraid of physical contact. Dr. Nuñez explains, “People can become concerned that if somebody touches them, they’re going to absorb traits from that person.”
Relationship OCD is another potential explanation. People with Relationship OCD will have obsessions and compulsions that are centered around their relationships with their partners and other loved ones. Some of those fears and doubts could therefore center around touch, as might be the case if somebody is very fearful of acting inappropriately or disrespectfully, explains Dr. Nuñez. “If someone else touches them, they might think: ‘Is this cheating? Or could it be construed that way?’” They might therefore avoid touch with other people altogether, even when it comes to innocent interactions among friends or family members.
Are there any downsides to avoiding touch?
For someone who hates being touched, the very idea of touching others might bring about a deep and intense discomfort. However, touch deprivation can have some very real consequences, especially when it comes to your mental health and your relationships with those around you.
For example, touch is a crucial part of newborn development. The vagus nerve, which is a nerve that is thought to help turn off our stressed, “fight or flight” response, responds to touch. As a result, some studies have found that maternal touch can help improve infants’ vagus nerve activity when compared to newborns who weren’t touched in the study.
Human touch also helps stimulate the release of oxytocin, a neurochemical that is thought to be responsible for bonding between humans, which means that a total lack of physical contact can sometimes make it harder to connect with your loved ones. For example, one study found that social anxiety and an aversion to touch affected both friendships and romantic relationships.
A total lack of touch can therefore have serious consequences on your mental health and well-being. This point was illustrated in a 2021 study that evaluated the effects of social touch deprivation during COVID-19 social restrictions. The researchers here found that intimate touch deprivation was associated with both higher anxiety and greater reports of loneliness.
Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that not everyone’s aversion to physical contact actually aligns with their own desires or intentions. It’s not uncommon for someone to value and desire touch with loved ones, only to face feelings of disgust or fears about contamination when they’re actually in those situations. This can create a frustrating and demoralizing barrier between themselves and others, leading them to feel as if they’re being led against their will by their own fears and emotions.
The scientific benefits of touch
The benefits of touch begin almost from the moment that you are born. Skin-to-skin contact between a newborn and its parents in the first hour of life promotes breastfeeding and helps the infant go through its first instinctive stages like crying after birth, relaxing, resting, and crawling. It’s also thought to increase oxytocin levels in the mother, which can help with those crucial first moments of bonding.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, research has linked touch to several positive effects like intimacy, bonding, and communication between people. Touch can also be calming, which can promote one’s ability to respond to stress.
Finally, not only does contact with others make you feel happier, but it also seems to have effects on your physical health as well. For example, a recent study on older adults found that subjects who reported more frequent physical touch tended to have significantly lower levels of inflammation, a state that is linked to several chronic health conditions.
How to overcome your aversion to touch
No one should ever feel obligated to be touched by someone, and having boundaries certainly isn’t a bad thing. However, if you feel that your aversion is affecting your mental health and/or your relationships with others, and if you want to find ways to overcome it, there are definitely things that you can do.
If you don’t believe that your experiences correspond with one of the specific conditions we discussed earlier, talk therapy can be a good place to start. Your fear of being touched can come from several different places—if you aren’t sure where exactly yours stems from, talking with a licensed professional can help you untangle your beliefs and attitudes toward social touch and help you better understand why you have the boundaries that you do.
There are also specific treatments that can better address the specific underlying causes behind your fears. For example, in the case of PTSD, prolonged exposure (PE) is an effective treatment. PE also involves exposing patients to their fears and gradually teaching them that those fears are not dangerous. In this case, this might involve helping people with PTSD confront the memories of their trauma that are related to touch.
What to do if your fear of touch is related to OCD
Finally, if your fear of touch stems from OCD, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the most effective treatment option—it’s also a highly effective treatment option for phobias like haphephobia.
ERP involves working with a licensed therapist who gradually helps you face the things that you fear most, then guides you in resisting the urge to respond to the resulting distress and discomfort with compulsions.
So in this case of someone with OCD who fears being touched, ERP would generally involve getting you comfortable with touch. Dr. Nuñez explains that ERP therapy in this case helps people take intentional, gradual steps toward their biggest fears around touch. “If someone’s ultimate goal is to comfortably give someone a whole bear hug, ERP might start first with handshakes or touching other things that people have touched, even if you’re not touching that person.”
Crucially, there’s also the component of response prevention, which involves helping people recognize and resist the urge to respond to the fear of touch with compulsions—including but not limited to their avoidance of touch. “This might look like not washing your hands in the case of Contamination OCD, or not confessing to your partner that you hugged somebody in the case of Relationship OCD,” explains Dr. Nuñez. Ultimately, the goal is to help the patient with OCD sit with the anxiety and discomfort that comes from their fears and recognize that they can tolerate those feelings.
If you believe that your fear of being touched may be related to OCD, NOCD’s entire therapist network is specialty-trained in ERP and can help you work through your specific obsessions and compulsions that leave you averse to touch from others. Book a free 15-minute call to learn more about how NOCD can help you face your fears and live life on your own terms.