How did you react the last time you had a fight with that significant someone in your life? With couples, the woman might apologize, or the man might make a joke or express understanding. By doing this, they subtly and briefly lighten the tension as they work their way through a disagreement.
Psychology Professor James Coan discovered a long time ago that by doing this, even when couples fight, they take care of each other. This interplay was significant when Coan designed a study exploring what happens in people’s brains when they behave emotionally or observe other people’s emotions. Coan said, “what we are learning is our emotions are more heavily involved in our day-to-day physical health than we previously thought.
How we deal with our relationships is closely tied to how long we live, how frequently we go to the doctor, how rapidly we recover from injury, how happy we tend to be in our lives.” With his colleagues, Hillary Schaefer and Richard J. Davidson from the University of Wisconsin, Coan sought to demonstrate the neurobiological basis of emotional expression and regulatory processes.
In the study, they used MRI technology to view these responses at the level of glucose metabolism and blood oxygenation in the brain. Because of the importance of emotional connectedness to the study, 16 happily married, heterosexual couples were recruited as test subjects. Wives were placed in the scanner so brain activity could be recorded as each was exposed to the anxiety-producing possibility of an electric shock to the ankle.
Researchers wanted to see what effect different types of emotional support would have in areas of the brain related to the body’s normal fight-or-flight stress response. Readings were taken when the woman was alone in facing this challenge, When a stranger, a male, was present to support her And when her husband offered support. Coan stated, “the scanning environment is pretty hostile to looking at interactions between people.” The MRI machine surrounds the subject’s body and restricts movement. The women weren’t even able to see the support person during the scanning process.
Having the man offer his hand for the woman to hold was about the only intervention possible in this setting. Not surprisingly, the results show there was a healthy reduction in the stress response when test subjects were supported. Stimulation in the regions of the brain that regulate physiological arousal and coordinate large muscles and joints was significantly decreased, no matter who was holding the woman’s hand. However, when it was her husband’s hand she was holding, the response was significantly greater.
Coan said, “When you’re holding a spouse’s hand, you get down-regulation in all of those same systems. But all the other systems that have to do with the conscious regulation of your emotions — having to pay attention to what’s happening with your body and having to become more vigilant for future dangers — all of these other systems come down as well. Your brain doesn’t work as hard when it’s your spouse. What surprised Coan and his colleagues most was the relaxation response demonstrated by what they called “super couples.” In those couples with exceptionally high-quality relationships, “Hand-holding had a significantly greater effect on soothing their brains.”
Tests showed differences involving two structures that were not affected at all in other test subjects. They observed evidence of reduced release of stress hormones by the hypothalamus. These hormones are responsible for inhibiting immune response and other activities that have critical implications for health and well-being.
Of greater interest was the reduction of activity in the right anterior insula. This brain structure modulates the amount of pain stimulus one experiences subjectively. Reduction of activity in this area means test subjects actually felt less pain when they held their husband’s hand.
So it can be said, having someone you love hold your hand really can take the hurt away.