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I want to hold your hand

Showing physical affection can help to reduce anxiety, says David Servan-Schreiber

by Psychologies

Carla has fallen off her bike and has a bad cut above her eye. She’s bleeding, she’s shaking, her head hurts. Her husband Jack has called an ambulance, but doesn’t really know what else he can do. So he holds her hand and strokes her hair gently. He tries to reassure her and tells her everything is going to be all right, that she’ll soon be in good hands.

Once they get to casualty, Jack isn’t allowed to go with Carla while she’s being treated. He sits for over an hour in the waiting room and then goes to find her. She’s sitting on her own, still feeling very shaken. He still doesn’t know what to do, but just holds her hand while they wait. It makes a big difference to her that he’s there.

Some hours later, after the x-rays show there is nothing serious, and the cut is dressed, they take a taxi home. She turns to him and says, ‘You can’t imagine how much it helped me having you there to hold my hand when I was so scared.’ And they look at each other and smile.

Affection can’t heal injuries, but it can reduce feelings of solitude and fear. We now know that it can even help with physical pain. At the University of Wisconsin in the US, Richard Davidson, a renowned expert in neuroscience research, has studied the levels of fear and pain experienced by women when they were subjected to small electric shocks. Magnetic resonance imaging measurements were taken of their brain activity.

When left alone, the women felt fear and pain, and the emotional area of their brain was particularly active. If their hand was held by a member of the laboratory team whom they’d never met before and whose face they could not see, they still felt physical pain but were less frightened. If their partner held their hand, brain activity calmed down markedly at every level.

Something remarkable happens through physical contact — it’s as powerful as a drug, effectively reducing pain and anxiety. And the stronger the relationship between the people touching, the more efficient the ‘drug’ proved. Its effect was directly proportional to the love they felt for their partner.

While the women’s hands were being held, changes were visible in one of the deepest regions of the brain’s emotional area, the hypothalamus. This controls secretion of the body’s hormones, in particular stress hormones. To be able to regulate the hypothalamus — without any side effects — is the holy grail of the entire pharmaceutical industry.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin call emotional relationships ‘the hidden regulator’. ‘Regulator’ because they have a profound effect on brain function, and ‘hidden’ because it’s imperceptible when all is fine, but plays a key role in situations of stress or threat. That night at the hospital, Carla and Jack had an intuitive understanding of their need for a physical connection. And to think how much more we could gain from it..