There are numerous options for those of us looking to reduce stress. Yoga, walking and deep breathing exercises are among some of the most well-known. As it turns out, scientists have discovered that relief might be closer than you think: at the end of your arm to be exact! Research has shown that holding hands with a spouse has the ability to reduce stress levels.
A study published in the journal Psychological Science examined the stress response of married heterosexual couples. The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a method that measures brain activity by detecting blood flow and oxygen consumption in various areas of the brain in response to activity. Potential subjects were first asked to rate their marriage quality on a scale from 0-151. Couples who were determined to have a distressed union, as evidenced by scores of less than 100, were excluded. That left 16 couples with what were considered to be happy marriages.
To prepare for the experiment, the couples were made familiar with the fMRI machine, and were told that the study would involve hand-holding and electric shocks. During the study, the female partners had electrodes attached to their ankles. They watched screens which either warned of an impending electrical shock or let them know that no shock was coming. When made aware of an upcoming shock, their brain scans reflected activity in the areas of the brain that deal with threats. The women’s brain activity in response to impending stress was measured when holding hands with their spouse, holding hands with an unseen male stranger, and not holding hands with anyone at all.
The resulting brain scans showed the following: In anticipation of electrical shock, stress was highest when the women did not hold anyone’s hand. Stress was somewhat lower when they held hands with the stranger. Stress was reduced the most when the women held hands with their partner. When it came time to rate the experiment in terms of unpleasantness or stress, the women reported findings along the same lines. Holding the hand of a stranger was better than no hand holding at all, but holding the hands of their spouses brought the greatest relief. We know that stress is contagious, but apparently a feeling of calm is contagious too.
I mentioned that all of these subjects were in happy marriages, but some of the marriages still ranked higher or more successful than others in the group. Interestingly, the women in the happiest marriages reported feeling the greatest amount of relief from holding their spouses hand during the tests. This suggests a direct relationship between marital success and stress relief. (1) If you are suffering from adrenal fatigue, this suggests that working on your relationship with your spouse might be one way to regain your vitality.
An earlier study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, also demonstrated the positive benefits of spousal hand holding and touch. In this experiment, University of North Carolina researchers told couples were told they would be giving a speech. Many people experience increased stress at the prospect of public speaking. To prepare, 100 couples embraced for 20 seconds after sitting together and holding hands for a little while. The other group sat quietly, but were separated from their partners. Each person then gave the speech, while having their heart rate and blood pressure measured. Researchers found that the people who just sat quietly, without touch, had blood pressure and heart rates that rose nearly twice as much as the people who held hands and embraced. (2)
The findings of these studies are in line with other research that attempts to draw a link between healthy marriages, or stable committed relationships and improved physical health, reduced stress and mental health. In most of these studies, researchers focused on the levels of cortisol, which is considered to be the major stress hormone. Long term exposure to high levels of cortisol in the blood has been linked to chronic inflammatory diseases like ulcerative colitis, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lowered immunity to opportunistic infections, slower healing times, and greater susceptibility to eventual adrenal fatigue. Researchers have found that people in healthy marriages and long term relationships tend to have lower levels of cortisol, and this should be associated with better long term health.
Another important hormone studied in relation to human relationships and reduced stress is Oxytocin. This hormone is believed to be released during hugs and other types of positive touching. It is associated with intimacy: increasing trust, facilitating bonding and reducing fear. In studies that explore the association between relationships and stress, like the ones detailed above, Oxytocin is often measured along with Cortisol. (3)
While research has established that holding hands with a partner can reduce stress, there is one caveat. Researchers emphasize that hand holding (and other forms of positive touch) seem to work best as stress-reducers in healthy relationships.
References & Further Reading
- WebMD, “Wives in Happy Marriages Feel Less Stress While Holding Hands With Husband”, http://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20061220/holding-hands-may-reduce-stress.
- Reuniting.info, “Anti-stress benefits of holding hands”, http://www.reuniting.info/science/articles/supportive_relationship_good_for_health.
- Associated Counselors and Therapists, “Marriage is Good for Your Health”, http://www.beachpsych.com/pages/cc110.html.