“Touched out”: Coping with the overwhelming sensation of physical touch

Physical touch, whether it’s a hug, a kiss, or even just holding hands, can feel great from those we love. However, it’s also possible to receive too much and become overwhelmed by touch.

Many people, especially mothers, can start to feel “touched out” when their sense of physical touch is overstimulated or their physical boundaries are crossed. This can cause them to be withdrawn, irritable, anxious, and isolated as a way to protect themselves from the overwhelm they feel when being confronted with touch. The best way to deal with this is to set boundaries for personal touch, even with people we love.

What Does “Touched Out” Mean?

Typically, being “touched out” means that you have become overstimulated due to too much physical touch from a significant other or a child and wish to limit the frequency of people’s physical contact with your body. This is a completely normal sensation that can happen to anyone, whether they usually like physical contact or not.

Often, being “touched out” signifies that you are feeling dysregulated and overwhelmed, maybe even bombarded with stimuli from your partner. Your partner might not have this intention and might be trying to show you love and affection, but your body and mind are not ready to receive love and affection through physical contact and touch.

This can happen frequently to mothers, especially if they already dislike physical touch to begin with, though can happen to dads and even those without kids. However, it can be common with parents nonetheless, as it can be difficult to know how to set boundaries with small children who might gravitate toward touch and need constant parental attention.

What Are Symptoms of Feeling Touched Out?

Symptoms of feeling touched out will look and feel different for everyone. However, there are a few common symptoms that many who feel touched out share: 

  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of significant others
  • Decrease in time spent around significant others
  • Recoiling from physical touch
  • Increased anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Increased conflict with significant others
  • Decrease in enjoyment of time spent with significant others
  • Increased isolation
  • Heightened desire to be alone

In rare cases, dissociation can also occur as a means of escaping all physical presence of being. If you think you are feeling touched out, consider setting some boundaries around touching with those close to you and talking to a mental health professional about your symptoms. They can work with you to discover the root of the issue and give you tools and coping mechanisms to help.

Signs and Symptoms of Feeling Emotionally Drained

Signs and symptoms of feeling emotionally drained often mimic those of burnout and occur when your emotions are stretched too thin or have been consistently overwhelmed, draining your energy. Some warning signs that you are emotionally drained are: 

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Decrease in doing activities/hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Irritable mood
  • Depressed mood
  • Hypersomnia (sleeping too much/excessive tiredness)
  • Hyposomnia (sleeping too little)
  • Increased appetite
  • Decreased appetite
  • Low motivation
  • Withdrawal/isolation
  • Feelings of apathy or worthlessness
  • Decreases in personal hygiene
  • Decrease in self-esteem

Further, people who are emotionally drained can have a shorter ability to focus, have a lower “social battery,” and can also have an increased desire to self-isolate from significant others and their social support system. 

How Do I Explain “Touched Out” to My Spouse?

One of the best ways to objectively communicate your feelings of being “touched out” to your spouse is to discuss how their behavior impacts your mental and emotional experience. 

“I” statements are great ways to prevent defensiveness in your spouse while also helping them understand what needs are currently going unmet. “I” statements are structured so that you are communicating without using generalizing statements about whoever you’re talking to. For example: “I feel (insert experienced emotion) when you (insert spouse’s behavior).” 

This can help eliminate defensiveness or perceived blame, and can disarm both parties from having any ammunition for further conflict. By focusing on generating insight and understanding, people are much more motivated to change and feedback is much more effective and palatable, thus increasing the likelihood of your needs being heard, received, and ultimately met.

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Strategies to Reclaim Emotional Balance

The best way to reclaim emotional balance is to seek professional counseling services. In counseling, you will focus on areas of your life that feel unbalanced and out of your control as well as stressors that you are experiencing that are negatively impacting your moods, emotions, and overall functioning. 

Outside of therapy and counseling, another great way to reclaim emotional balance is to start small and make a list of things that are in your control versus those out of your control. 

Next, think of some things that are out of your control that you can practice “letting go” of. This is called radical acceptance. Radical acceptance allows us to lessen some of our suffering by allowing us to accept the current situation rather than wasting energy fretting about it. This doesn’t mean that we like the situation or think it should be happening, but this practice can help us get out of our own way and view our current situation through a more realistic lens in terms of what we can and can’t do.

This can also give you more energy to confront things that are in your control, such as setting boundaries.

What to Do When You’re Feeling Touched Out

The first and most important step is to admit to yourself that you’re feeling this way. Recognize your personal agency, wants, and needs, and allow yourself to explore the ways you feel your personal boundaries might be being violated. A great next step is to explore professional mental health services. 

In the meantime, it is important to have a conversation with significant others who are contributing to your feelings of being touched out and talk to them about appropriate boundaries that you would like to see moving forward — what would make you feel more comfortable, perhaps using those “I” statements mentioned above to help them gain insight into how their behaviors impact your functioning. If you’re struggling with feeling touched out because of your kids, try involving your spouse in helping you maintain your physical boundaries.

By doing this, you can make your environment work better for you so that it can once again feed you positive energy rather than taking that energy away.

The Role of Self-Care in Combatting “Touched Out” Feelings

Self-care plays a critical role in combatting touched-out feelings. It’s important to understand that if you get to a place where you feel touched out, it’s not due to a simple lack of self-care; rather, it’s due to pervasive, repetitive boundary-crossing behaviors on the part of others. 

However, self-care can be a great mediating factor and can lessen the intensity of these touched-out feelings, as well as help manage your stress. Find habits that nourish your mind and body and make time to do them on a regular basis. The more you engage in self-care, the more attuned you are to your personal needs. 

This, in turn, will help give you the energy and conviction to solidify and maintain your interpersonal boundaries with others, which can significantly combat feelings of being touched out. By setting interpersonal boundaries, you can often reduce or eliminate any physical contact that’s unwanted with others.

Building Resilience for a Stress-Free Life

One excellent habit for increasing your personal resilience (outside of seeking professional counseling services) is to explore your stressors and triggers. What people, places, things, events, sensations, sounds, and physical sensations cause you to have intense emotions that feel unmanageable? Keep a record of them, either mentally or physically.

Next, try to create a system in which you rank these items by intensity, then create a list of effective coping strategies for each one. The more you are able to readily recognize these stressors and triggers and successfully implement coping and emotion regulation strategies, the less intense and less dysregulating they become. Putting this into practice will ultimately increase your overall level of distress tolerance.

It is difficult to set and maintain boundaries with those we love, but putting firm limits on the physical touch you receive from others is the most effective way to stop feeling touched out.

Table of contents

What Does “Touched Out” Mean?

What Are Symptoms of Feeling Touched Out?

How Do I Explain “Touched Out” to My Spouse?

Strategies to Reclaim Emotional Balance

What to Do When You’re Feeling Touched Out

Building Resilience for a Stress-Free Life

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  • Van Raalte, L. J., Burke, T. J., DeGroot, J. M., & Mellow, A. J. (2022). Examining Changes in Affection and “Feeling Touched Out” after the Birth of a Child. Journal of Family Communication, 23(1), 52–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2022.2142229

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