Holding hands (and swearing) eases pain
It is well known that people unconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they’re walking with or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during conversation. Researchers at the University of Colorado believe that when lovers touch, and their breathing and heartbeats synchronize, feelings of pain can also disappear.
Scientists believe that merely holding hands with a loved one activates an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with pain, empathy and heart function.
To test the healing powers of a lover’s touch, researchers asked couples to take part in an experiment where women were subjected to pain. They discovered that if the woman’s partner was allowed to hold her hand, she reported feeling lower levels of pain than if the couple merely sat next to each another.
It seems that the more empathic the partner and the higher the synchronization, the stronger is the effect when they are touching. Recent studies have shown that heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronize when partners watch an emotional movie or sing together, and further research has also shown that when romantic couples are simply in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up.
The Colorado study is the first to explore interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and touch. Researchers hope it can inform healthcare providers seek drug-free pain relief options.
This study of 22 couples is the latest in a growing body of research on ‘interpersonal synchronization’ – the phenomenon where individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with. The same is true when leaders and followers have a good rapport – their brainwaves fall into a similar pattern. Rapport is important when people take part in therapy, particularly in hypnotherapy. Good stage hypnotists, especially those who are good at establishing rapport with an audience can control the rhythms of an audience, its emotional ups and downs, and in time will submerge nearly every member of that audience into the larger collective organism of the group.
Dr. Pavel Goldstein, who led the study, said he got the idea when his first child was born. Wanting to ease his wife’s pain, he reached out and held hers, something that seemed to ease her pain. ‘It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect.’
To test the theory, he recruited 22 long-term heterosexual couples, aged 23 to 32, and put them through a series of tests aimed at mimicking the delivery-room scenario.
Both partners’ heart and breathing rates were measured while they either sat in separate rooms, sat together without touching, or sat together holding hands. The researchers repeated all three scenarios while the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for two minutes.
As in previous studies, the study showed couples synced physiologically to some degree just by sitting together. But when the woman was subjected to pain and the man couldn’t touch her, the synchronization was non-existent. When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again and her pain decreased.
If pain interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples, then it seems touch brings it back.
Goldstein’s previous research found that the more empathy the man showed for the woman, the more her pain subsided during touch and, the more physiologically synchronized they were, the less pain she felt.
However, it’s not yet clear whether decreased pain is causing increased synchronicity, or synchronicity is responsible for decreased pain. It might be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or painkilling, effect. Further research is needed to fully understand how a partner’s touch eases pain.
For now, Dr Goldstein suspects it is a lover’s touch that affects the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with pain perception, empathy, and heart and respiratory function.
The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples, or what happens when the man is the subject of pain but Dr Goldstein plans future studies.
Many people’s experience is that pain can subside if someone is ‘sharing’ that pain. This is as true when the pain is emotional as it is when the pain is physical. Nonetheless the research will help lend scientific credence to the notion that touch eases pain.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
In the meantime, Researchers from the universities of Keele and Central Lancashire have confirmed that swearing actually raises tolerance to pain.
In Japan, swearing – even when in pain – is seen as culturally unacceptable behaviour, unlike in the UK, where swearing is a normal response. So to prove their point, a group of volunteers from the UK and Japan took part in a simple experiment.
They were all asked to immerse their non-dominant hand in ice-cold water and keep it there. Half were told to repeatedly use a swear word, either in English or Japanese, while the other half used neutral non-swear words. Both Japanese and British participants were more tolerant of the painful stimulus when they were allowed to swear – 78.8 seconds for those who swore with abandon, compared with 45.7 seconds for those using a neutral word.
One theory is that swearing stimulates the fight-or-flight response to threats, resulting in increased heart rate and tensed muscles. Part of this reaction is a dulled response to pain. Another theory is that swearing increases levels of emotion capable of reducing the sensation of pain.
Reported in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain.