“You can’t imagine how much it helped me having you there to hold my hand when I was so scared.” Have you ever said this to someone in your life? Or has someone ever said it to you?
Something remarkable happens through physical contact, something as powerful as a drug, something that effectively reduces pain and anxiety. And the stronger the relationship between the people touching, research shows, the more effective the physical contact.
Affection can’t heal injuries, but it can reduce feelings of solitude and fear. It can even help with physical pain. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, studied the levels of fear and pain experienced by women when they were subjected to mild electric shocks. Left alone while receiving the electric shocks, the women felt fear and pain, and the areas of their brains responsible for emotion were particularly active. But if a member of the laboratory team held their hands—someone they had never met before and whose face they could not see—the women felt less fear, even though they were still in physical pain. Their brain activity calmed down markedly at every level if their partners were the ones holding their hands.
Changes were visible in the hypothalamus, the brain area involved most in processing emotions, while the women’s hands were held. The hypothalamus controls secretion of the body’s hormones, in particular stress hormones.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin call emotional relationships “the hidden regulator” because they have a profound effect on brain function and because this effect is imperceptible when all is going fine. It only becomes obvious in situations of stress or threat.
Human contact can help reduce physical pain and emotional anxiety. The entire pharmaceutical industry is trying to achieve the same effect with a pill, without producing any side effects. But a simple touch already does it.
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