You’ve just been frightened, or you’ve just received bad news. You naturally reach out to your loved one. They take you in their arms and you feel calmed and comforted. This moment of connection helps you find a way to get through the rough time. It’s such an automatic reaction, such a basic response. A child who has been frightened or hurt will run to the arms of his parent to be calmed and soothed. As adults, we are no different. Bonding and connection help reduce the impact of the bad things that happen in our lives, and improve our health and sense of well-being.
Recent research by James A. Coan, of University of Virginia and Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson of W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior and Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison has recently shown scientifically how the presence and support of a loved one can reduce how stressful it is for us to be threatened with a painful situation. In this research, women who were in very good marital relationships were given shocks while their brain activity was being monitored by fMRI -functional magnetic resonance imaging. (Yes, they all actually agreed to do this, in the spirit of advancing science!) In one condition, they held their husband’s hand; in another, they held the hand of a stranger, and in the third, no hand at all. Hand holding had previously been shown to reduce anxiety under stressful conditions. (But you already knew that, didn’t you?) Coan, et al, took it a step further and actually watched what happens in our brain when we are threatened, but also comforted by a loved one. They also believed that the quality of the relationship would make a difference in the level of comfort and support received, and they were correct.
As they hypothesized, the fMRI showed lower stress arousal when holding hands, even with a stranger, but holding the hand of one’s spouse also provided subjective feelings of comfort and relief. In other words, the women were much less bothered by the shock or threat of shock when they were holding the hand of their loving partner. The fMRI indicated that the hypothalamus was less reactive, there was less cortisol, and increased oxytocin. This is particularly interesting, because these same indications have also been linked with improved immune function.
As they hypothesized, the benefit and degree of comfort increased with the degree of marital happiness of the couple. Marital satisfaction, in fact, has been shown to be associated with faster recovery from injury, decreased risk of infection, and a lower mortality rate following a diagnosis of life threatening illness. So we’re beginning to see the actual physical manifestation of how a healthy, loving relationship can improve our overall health and well-being.
Is it important to take care of our relationships and each other? The evidence is more compelling every day. So often, we get busy and think we’ll get around to connecting with our partner “when we have more time”. Or hurts and resentments accumulate and we put up a protective barrier. Or we let anger be more important than love, forgiveness and compassion. How about making today be the day you reach out to each other, in support and mutual caring? It will make you happier, and you may actually live longer, too.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.