Holding the hand of a loved one during times of distress really can reduce their discomfort, scientists believe. Researchers revealed that, at least for women, the touch or look of a boyfriend seems to anaesthetise them from pain. Even a photograph of their partner is enough to have an effect.
The discovery was made by psychologists at the University of California and “underscores the importance of social relationships and staying socially connected”, they reported.
The 25 volunteers were mostly students who had been in a good relationship with their boyfriends for at least six months.
Tests revealed that if the young women were given a mild burn, they felt less discomfort by looking at photos of their boyfriends.
A similar anaesthetising effect was found if they held hands with their partners when “moderately painful heat stimuli” was applied to their forearms.
Researcher Naomi Eisenberger, an assistant professor of psychology involved in the study, said: “When the women were just looking at pictures of their partner, they actually reported less pain to the heat stimuli than when they were looking at pictures of an object or pictures of a stranger.
Thus, the mere reminder of one’s partner through a simple photograph was capable of reducing pain.
“This changes our notion of how social support influences people. Typically, we think that in order for social support to make us feel good, it has to be the kind of support that is very responsive to our emotional needs.
“Here, however, we are seeing that just a photo of one’s significant other can have the same effect.”
In further experiments, each woman held either the hand of her boyfriend, the hand of a male stranger or a squeeze ball. The “thermal stimulus” last for just a tenth of second to produce a “sharp prickling sensation.”
The volunteers who held hands “reported less physical pain than when they were holding a stranger’s hand or a ball while receiving the same amount of heat stimulation”.
Prof Eisenberger added: “This study demonstrates how much of an impact our social ties can have on our experience and fits with other work emphasising the importance of social support for physical and mental health.”
The findings might also explain why a mother can apparently give instant comfort to a poorly child by “kissing it better”.
The researchers gave advice to anyone suffering pain or stress that if you cannot bring a loved one with you, a photo may do instead.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.