Published on Psychology Today
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, pink and red hearts, flowers, and candies with sweet nothings written on them fill the shelves of local stores. Whether or not you have a romantic partner in your life, many of us are primed to think about the ones we love this time of year. And if you’re looking for something nice to do for that special someone, one of the best things you can do for them has nothing to do with jewelry, flowers, or boxes of chocolates. Instead, it just involves simply holding their hand.
According to world renowned psychologist (and expert on handholding), Jim Coan from the University Virginia, holding hands with someone you trust—whether it be a friend, a romantic partner, a parent, a sibling, or a child—can have a positive impact on your health. Why you ask? Researchers have shown that the simple act of touch can reduce stress hormones (i.e., cortisol) (Feldman, Singer, & Zagoory, 2010) and even lower heart rate (Ludington & Hosseini, 2005).
Jim and his colleagues demonstrated this in a study where he brought couples into his lab, and then put one of them in an fMRI machine to scan the activity in their brains. While scanning them, the participants looked at a screen, and on a series of trials, they either saw a green circle or a red “X.” A green circle meant that the trial would end shortly and nothing else would happen. A red “X” meant that in a few seconds, there was a chance that they would receive a mild electric shock on their ankle. The shock wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable either. The important part of the study was that during some of these trials, participants were in the fMRI scanner alone; on others, a researcher came in and held their hand, and on a final set of trials, their romantic partner came in and held their hand. Jim and colleagues found that when participants thought they might be getting a shock, they had a lower stress response in their brains when holding their partners’ hand than in the other two conditions. And the happier the couples said they were in their relationships, the more the partner’s hand lessened the brain’s response to the shock (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006).
This study suggests that when we’re stressed, holding a loved one’s hand can reduce that stress, even in the body and the brain. In fact, hand holding has been used in clinical situations that are highly stress inducing. For example, researchers have found that patients who held a researcher’s hand during cataracts surgery reported feeling significantly less anxious during the surgery and had lower rates of epinephrine (a hormone related to anxiety and stress) (Moon & Cho, 2001). Further, researchers have even reported that handholding can be effective in reducing physical (e.g., Goldstein et al., 2018; Weekes et al., 1993) as well as emotional pain (Sahi et al., 2021).
But we don’t just hold our partner’s hands—we hold onto our kids too. And research suggests that touch can be particularly important for reducing stress in children. In a similar study with 4- and 5-year-old children, Cat Thrasher and colleagues looked at the effect of a parent holding a child’s hand on the child’s performance on a threat detection task. Children sat in front of a touchscreen monitor and were asked to find a single happy face among angry face distractors or an angry face among happy distracters and touch it on the screen. In this task, children typically show a bias for threat, and detecting angry targets more quickly than happy ones. In Cat’s study, the presence of the child’s caregiver produced the expected results, and children detected angry faces more quickly than happy faces. But when the caregiver held the child’s hand, children’s threat bias was significantly reduced (Thrasher & Grossman, 2019).
Research suggests that touch has immediate positive effects for babies as well. Skin-to-skin contact can reduce crying (Ludington-Hoe, & Hosseini, 2005; Michelsson, Christensson, Rothgänger, & Winberg, 1996), stress (Feldman, Singer, & Zagoory, 2010), promote sleep (Feldman, Rosenthal, & Eidelman, 2014), and even help establish a breastfeeding routine (Widström, Lilja, Aaltomaa‐Michalias, Dahllöf, Lintula, & Nissen, 2011). These effects can be incredibly long lasting, especially for premature babies who generally require incubators after birth and don’t often receive skin-to-skin contact from their mothers right away. For example, in one study, researchers randomly assigned one group of premature infants to receive two weeks of skin-to-skin contact from their mothers, while a second group of premature infants were assigned to remain in their incubators in the hospital. The infants who were touched had healthier stress responses, sleep patterns, and even some better cognitive abilities than infants who were simply given the standard incubator treatment. Most importantly, these effects were still evident in these children 10 years later (Feldman, Rosenthal, & Eidelman, 2014). This suggests that touch can have important and long-lasting effects on children. And there’s no such thing as too much: One study found that adults who were held and cuddled as babies were the most likely to be healthy and well-adjusted as adults—in fact, the more they were carried, the better they functioned (Narvaez, Wang, & Cheng, 2016).
So this Valentine’s Day, instead of spending money on something fleeting, give your partner’s hand a little squeeze, your toddler a cuddle, or your friend a warm hug: It might be exactly what they need to warm the heart during this cold winter season.
For more information on “Why We Hold Hands”, check out Jim Coan’s Ted talk.
Photo by truthseeker08/pixabay
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological science, 17(12), 1032-1039.
Feldman, R., Rosenthal, Z., & Eidelman, A. I. (2014). Maternal-preterm skin-to-skin contact enhances child physiologic organization and cognitive control across the first 10 years of life. Biological psychiatry, 75(1), 56-64.
Feldman, R., Singer, M., & Zagoory, O. (2010). Touch attenuates infants’ physiological reactivity to stress. Developmental science, 13(2), 271-278.
Goldstein, P., Weissman-Fogel, I., Dumas, G., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2018). Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 115(11), E2528-E2537.
Ludington-Hoe, S. M., Hosseini, R., & Torowicz, D. L. (2005). Skin-to-skin contact (Kangaroo Care) analgesia for preterm infant heel stick. AACN Advanced Critical Care, 16(3), 373-387.
Michelsson, K., Christensson, K., Rothgänger, H., & Winberg, J. (1996). Crying in separated and non‐separated newborns: sound spectrographic analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 85(4), 471-475.
Moon, J. S., & Cho, K. S. (2001). The effects of handholding on anxiety in cataract surgery patients under local anaesthesia. Journal of advanced nursing, 35(3), 407-415.
Narvaez, D., Wang, L., & Cheng, Y. (2016). The evolved developmental niche in childhood: Relation to adult psychopathology and morality. Applied Developmental Science, 20(4), 294-309.
Sahi, R. S., Dieffenbach, M. C., Gan, S., Lee, M., Hazlett, L. I., Burns, S. M., ... & Eisenberger, N. I. (2021). The comfort in touch: Immediate and lasting effects of handholding on emotional pain. PloS one, 16(2), e0246753.
Thrasher, C., & Grossmann, T. (2021). Children’s emotion perception in context: The role of caregiver touch and relationship quality. Emotion, 21(2), 273.
Weekes, D. P., Kagan, S. H., James, K., & Seboni, N. (1993). The phenomenon of hand holding as a coping strategy in adolescents experiencing treatment-related pain. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, 10(1), 19-25.
Widström, A. M., Lilja, G., Aaltomaa‐Michalias, P., Dahllöf, A., Lintula, M., & Nissen, E. (2011). Newborn behaviour to locate the breast when skin‐to‐skin: a possible method for enabling early self‐regulation. Acta paediatrica, 100(1), 79-85.