Something beautiful happens when you hold your lover’s hand, according to this study

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Moya Crockett
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If you feel better when your beloved reaches out to hold your hand, you’re not alone.

A new study has revealed that holding hands with a loving partner has a striking physical effect on women. Scientists in the US found that when lovers touch, their breathing and heartbeats sync – and feelings of physical pain fade.

Their research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is part of a growing body of scientific investigations into ‘interpersonal synchronisation’, whereby people begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with.

Previous studies have shown that we subconsciously sync our footsteps to match those of the person we’re walking with, or adjust our posture to mirror a friend’s while we’re talking to them.

More recently, researchers have discovered that romantic couples’ heart rates, breathing patterns and brainwaves sync up while they are in each other’s presence (intriguingly, a similar phenomenon also occurs when non-couples sing together).

However, this study is the first to highlight the relationship between interpersonal synchronisation, touch and pain.

Paul Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, led the study. He came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter, now four.

“My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, ‘What can I do to help her?’” he says. “I reached for her hand and it seemed to help.”

Goldstein continues: “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”

To investigate this question, he recruited 22 long-term straight couples, aged between 23 and 32. The men were given the role of ‘observer’, while the women were assigned the ‘pain targets’ (which sounds fun). The idea was to test whether a partner’s touch could really soothe a woman’s experience of pain.

First, the couples had their heart and breathing rates measured in three separate scenarios: sitting together without touching, sitting together holding hands, and sitting in separate rooms. They then repeated these scenarios as the woman was subjected to a mild heat pain on her forearm for two minutes.

It was discovered that the couples synced physiologically to some degree by just sitting together, backing up previous research. But when the woman was experiencing pain and her partner couldn’t touch her, that synchronisation was ‘severed’. As soon as her boyfriend or husband was allowed to hold her hand, their heart and breathing rates synced up again and her feelings of pain subsided.

“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples,” Goldstein says. “Touch brings it back.”

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Earlier studies led by Goldstein showed that the more empathy a man shows for his partner, the more he was able to soothe her pain through touch.

“It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” he says.

However, it’s not yet clear exactly how touch eases pain – and more research is needed to explore whether the same effect would occur in same-sex couples, or what happens when it is the man who is experiencing pain.

Until then, Goldstein has some advice for fathers-to-be: make sure you hold your partner’s hand in the delivery room.

Images: iStock, Rex Features