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Holding Hands Helps

In the first study of how human touch affects the body's response to stress and threatening situations, Dr. James Coan, a psychologist in the departments of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Virginia, recruited married volunteers, slid them into MRI machines and warned them to expect an electric shock on their ankles. When spouses reached into the machines to hold their respective partner's hand—a simple yet loving gesture of support—the part of the brain that registers the anticipation of pain "turned off." The volunteers also said that they felt less distress.

The hand-holding also reduced agitation in the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls the release of stress hormones, which turn off our immune function. Eventually, a weakened immune system can make us sick.

"We can't see what our spouses are doing to our brains and emotions until a stressful event arises, but it's going on all the time," says Dr. Coan. "When a wife holds or caresses her husband, she is really reaching into the deepest parts of his brain, calming down the neural-threat response."

Can it be that easy access to a wifely hug after a fall-out with a neighbor or a pounding on the golf course is as potent as a tranquilizer or a beta-blocker? It starts with the simple act of holding hands and hugging—long and loving embraces, several times a day—according to the latest science.

-Marriage is a book of which the first chapter is written in poetry and the remaining
chapters in prose.

—Beverly Nichols
House to House, Volume 11, Number 5, Pages 4