I want to hold your hand: the health benefits of hand holding

Holding hands with a loved one can have a multitude of health benefits, according to a study published this week.

The report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that holding someone’s hand can reduce pain in either individual, steady the couple’s heart rates and even synchronise their brain waves.

Lead author Pavel Goldstein, a pain researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, devised the experiment after the birth of his daughter. Realising that holding his wife’s hand during labour helped to ease the pain of childbirth, he wanted to test whether touch could also decrease pain in other circumstances.

A team of researchers at the University of Haifa tested 22 heterosexual couples who had been together for at least one year. The partners were subjected to three two minute scenarios – sitting in separate rooms, sitting together without physical contact and sitting together holding hands – while electroencephalography caps measured their brain activity.

They found that when the experiment was repeated, this time with scientists subjecting the women to mild heat pain on their arms, the women felt less pain if her partner was in the same room as her, and even less again if they had physical contact.

Pain is prevented by brainwave synchronicity in the alpha-mu band, a wave rhythm that is related to focused attention. This study, therefore, suggests that physical contact enhances this synchronicity, with brain-to-brain coupling promoting temporary analgesia – the inability to feel pain – in individuals.

This coupling, which appears to diminish the further apart the partners are from each other, thus proves that interpersonal contact can relieve a person from feeling pain.

As well as indicating that touch is a factor that can increase synchronisation between people, the study also suggests that the more empathy the pair have for each other, the greater the amount of interpersonal synchronisation, and therefore the great amount of pain that can be eased by touch alone.

This was proven by testing the empathy levels of the male partners, finding that the more empathy he exhibited, the more their brain activity synced and, therefore, the less pain she felt.

“You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated,” Goldstein told Science Daily. “We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions. This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”

Other interpersonal synchronisation studies – the phenomenon in which people mirror the physiological behaviours of those they are with – have proven that this same type of contact-dependent synchronisation can been found in the respiratory systems, where the heart rates of couples begin to match with physical contact.

While this study did not test whether this phenomenon would occur between platonic pairings, do not underestimate the power of a hand hold.

Whether they’re a willing friend, flatmate, pet or, indeed, a romantic partner, it turns out this seemingly small gesture can have multiple health benefits, as well as making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Image credit: romankraft via unsplash

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