This is a very interesting piece. I think it is somewhat intuitive, but nevertheless. When stressed, the author posits that merely holding the hand of a loved one can reduce stress, and that this is a physiological trick. And as you read further, the author also shares how those not in relationship can also experience stress reduction through the hands. As I am thinking about hand-holding, perhaps this could also go far to explain the value of holding a patient’s hand during a visit (keeping in mind proper boundaries). I had a recent hospice visit where I visited with someone for just a few minutes but holding his hand for ten seconds and being present for those minutes provided the person with comfort. Maybe it was the stress reduction of hand holding that played a role.
It’s no secret that there’s more stress now than there ever has been. Maybe it’s a result of having more things than ever to pay attention to, or perhaps it’s the increasingly panicked way the news comes at us, or maybe it’s that people are feeling more alone today than ever before. Whatever the reason, one thing we now know is that a very simple type of connection actually reduces activity in the area of the brain that is responsible for releasing our stress hormones.
In an interesting study, Director of Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Jim Coan, PhD, found that when people are chronically stressed and had their hands held by a significant other, the hypothalamus, the region of the brain responsible for secreting the stress hormones, is less active.
Coan took 16 married women and had them go into a brain scanning machine (fMRI). Then an electrical shock was administered to them while holding their husband’s hand, a stranger’s hand and no hand at all. Not only did the women report less stress when holding their husband’s hand and the stranger’s hand, but the brain scan confirmed it.
As you might imagine the stress levels were least evident in the hands held of happier couples.
It’s always fun to see neuroscience backing up what many of us have known through experience for quite some time. For some reason it seems to add validity to it. Probably because we’re trained from the time we’re young to trust the experience of professionals, but not our own experience.
In The Now Effect I intentionally reinforce the notion of allowing our experience to be our best teacher so we can develop accurate and healthy intuition. I dedicate an entire section to Getting Connected with the understanding that when we’re connected we simply feel better and happier. We don’t really need neuroscience to tell us that, but it’s just fun that it does.
An important fact to understand with relationships is that the brain is wired to make them routine (like everything else). While you might remember holding hands quite a bit in the beginning, perhaps that’s gone by the wayside. Good to notice and also good to know that we can always begin again.
Now that neuroscience has confirmed it, perhaps it’s worth trying a little experiment of hand holding.
If you’re in a relationship, see if you can set any presumptive judgments aside and recognize that moment choice to hold the hand of your significant other and just see what you notice. As you practice and repeat this with intention, my guess is you’ll begin noticing some positive effects not only on your stress levels, but on your relationship as well.
The two go hand in hand (pun intended).
If you’re not in a relationship, it’s also my experience that taking time to give yourself a hand massage can be stress relieving too. There’s just something about making connection through physical touch.
It all boils down to connection. Connection creates balance and that leads to feeling happier. This is just one little thing you can experiment with, a little mindful hand holding, to deactivate ongoing stressors, feel more connected and maybe even live a happier life.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom we can all benefit from.
Holding hands photo available from Shutterstock.