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Study breaks down the healing effects of a loving touch

If you’re wondering what you can possibly do for your partner when they’re in excruciating pain, just holding their hand could be enough, new research shows.

The familiar urge to reach for a hand when we’re hurting, or desire to be held when we’re sick, now has a biological explanation.   

A Colorado University, Boulder study found that the mere touch of a partner can communicate empathy, and reduce the sensation of pain. 

Women reported a milder pain experience from heat experiments when their male partners were in the room and holding their hands.  

New dads really should be in the delivery rooms when their partners deliver babies, as a new study inspired by that very scenario showed the real pain-relieving effects of a loving touch (file image)

A loving touch may be the best medicine a new father can offer his partner during childbirth 

After holding his wife’s hand through her labor and delivery of their oldest daughter, Pavel Goldstein, a neuroscience researcher at CU Boulder wondered if hand-holding couldn’t have effects on our physical experience of pain. 

‘I was in the delivery room, and I felt like I didn’t know how I could help my wife,’ Goldstein recalls. 

‘She asked me to hold her hand, not to speak too much, just to hold her hand, and that was very helpful to her.’ 

Goldstein recreated the scenario in the lab. 

He and his team recruited 23 straight couples between the ages of 23 and 32. They all had to be healthy, on no medications besides birth control and be in a romantic relationship, ‘defined as couple who reported being in a serious relationship, living together for at least one year and having significant feelings of love for each other.’

The women were subjected to pain, in the form of heat to one forearm in four different settings: alone, in the same room but not touching their partner, while holding their partner’s hand, and while holding a stranger’s hand. 

Holding a partner’s hand, they found, significantly reduced the pain that the women experienced, according to their own ratings, while a stranger’s touch, or the mere presence of a partner was little help. 

Like clockwork: Our biology syncs up with our romantic partners, boosting empathy 

The CU researchers also gauged the empathy levels of the male partners. The more closely they ranked their partner’s pain to what the women experienced, the more empathetic they were deemed to be. 

The more empathetic the men were to their female partners, the more relief the women got form holding their hands.  

Goldstein and his team showed that people’s physiology is affected by empathy too.

Things – and people – naturally tend to sync up, according to both physics and behavioral science. 

I think about it like intelligence and muscle. When you want to do something really well, you want to practice the movement and skill. I think about this with touch and empathy 

Pavel Goldstein, CU Boulder behavioral scientist 

Two pendulum clocks hung in the same room exert tiny gravitational forces on each other, eventually syncing up their swings. 

A similar thing happens between people, only instead of swinging together, our breaths and heart beats fall into time with one another. 

It happens with everyone, to some extent, as part of the rhythm of communication. 

‘Even as I’m talking to you right now, there is some level of synchrony as we adjust to talk to one another, and that’s expressed physiologically,’ Goldstein says.  

Goldstein and his team guessed that synchrony, touch, empathy and pain-relief were all related. 

‘We expected high synchronization during pain, when female pain increased, even without touch, it is a very stressful condition’ for her male partner too, Goldstein says.  

That wasn’t the case, but once touch and pain were restored, so was synchrony. 

They found that while they were touching their female partners, the most empathetic males were most in sync with their counterparts, and had the most pain-reducing effects though hand-holding.

Touch can be a healing tool by expressing empathy to the ones we love 

The results make him suspect that ‘touch is a tool for us transfer our empathy through touch, so it’s about communication, and is a possible way for expressing the synchrony.’

He says that this upholds previous research that has demonstrated that when people choose to communicate a particular emotion through their touch, the receiver is able to correctly identify the intended emotion.   

But this isn’t something we think much about, let alone do. 

‘You never had anyone teach you how to touch, right? It’s not something we’re very mindful of in our community,’ Goldstein says.  

If we could change that, ‘the effects of touch can be powerful,’ Goldstein says, adding: ‘We have such a problem around painkillers, so it’s very important today to find [other] methods for pain relief.’  

‘I think about it like intelligence and muscle. When you want to do something really well, you want to practice the movement and skill. I think about this with touch and empathy,’ Goldstein says. 

‘Maybe we can use it more. I think touch is generally a good tool for connecting people – that doesn’t mean you need to touch everyone in the streets – but I think that touching between friends or romantic partners is very powerful.’