The Power of Holding Hands – A Study on Reducing Fear & Pain - Basic Knead by Michelle Ebbin
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Baby Talk July 2001

The Power of Holding Hands – A Study on Reducing Fear & Pain

I’ve always believed in the healing power of touch, but I recently came across a fascinating research study by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, which proves that touch can actually reduce feelings of fear, loneliness and physical pain.

In this study, scientists observed studied the levels of fear and pain experienced by women when they were given mild electric shocks. (Now, what woman would submit herself to this kind of research study is a mystery to me, but that is another story.) Anyway, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) measurements were taken of the women’s brain activity and the results were remarkable.

When left completely alone while receiving shocks, the women felt fear and pain, and the areas of their brains responsible for emotion were particularly active. However, if a member of the laboratory team held their hands (and this was someone they had never met before whose face they could not see) the women felt less fear, even though they were in physical pain.

Finally, and most interestingly, when the women’s partners held their hands during the electric shocks their brain activity calmed down markedly at every level. It’s almost as if holding their partner’s hands was like a drug that effectively reduced their pain and anxiety. In fact, the effect on the women’s brains was directly proportional to the love they felt for their partners.
While the women’s hands were held, in the MRI’s changes were visible in the hypothalamus, the brain area involved most in processing emotions. The hypothalamus controls secretion of the body’s hormones, in particular stress hormones. The researchers at the University of Wisconsin call emotional relationships “the hidden regulator” because they have a profound effect on brain function in situations of stress and threat. However, their effect is imperceptible when everything is going fine.

So, I say hold your partner’s hand whenever you can. And if you don’t have a partner, grab a hold of a friend’s hand and give it a squeeze. The power of touch may be imperceptible but it’s there and it’s effective.

**For any science enthusiasts out there, here’s the abstract called “Lending a Hand–Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat from the “Psychological Science” Journal:

ABSTRACT—Social contact promotes enhanced health and well-being, likely as a function of the social regulation of emotional responding in the face of various life stressors. For this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 16 married women were subjected to the threat of electric shock while holding their husband’s hand, the hand of an anonymous male experimenter, or no hand at all. Results indicated a pervasive attenuation of activation in the neural systems supporting emotional and behavioral threat responses when the women held their husband’s hand. A more limited attenuation of activation in these systems occurred when they held the hand of a stranger. Most strikingly, the effects of spousal hand-holding on neural threat responses varied as a function of marital quality, with higher marital quality predicting less threat- related neural activation in the right anterior insula, su- perior frontal gyrus, and hypothalamus during spousal, but not stranger, hand-holding.

To read the entire research study, go to: http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/web/pubs/2006/CoanLendingPsychSci.pdf

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