Every woman is different, for sure, but when I was in labor with each of my sons, I seriously needed my husband close by. Whether it was the back massage he gave me during early labor, or those minutes he let me squeeze the heck out of his hand as labor got tougher, his physical presence was one of the key things that got me through the intense and painful roller-coaster of giving birth to tiny humans.
And I am not alone. According to a new study, there is scientific proof that the touch and closeness of our significant others can have substantial effects on our experience of pain. The study, published in the latest issue of PNAS, was inspired by lead researcher’s Pavel Goldstein’s experience of holding his wife’s hand during his oldest daughter’s labor.
When Goldstein realized just how profoundly his touch had helped ease her pain, he decided to conduct research to figure out why that was. (Side note: How incredibly sweet is this dude?)
“It helped reduce her pain,” Goldstein tells Tonic. “After, I was thinking about that. What does it mean? How was it helpful? It was at this point I started to think about researching social touch and pain.”
Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher at University of Colorado Boulder, teamed up with the University of Haifa to delve into this current study. In a nutshell, what he and his team found is that when you provide loving touch to a partner who is in pain, your breathing and heart rates synch up. This makes you more empathetic toward your partner, which thereby makes your brain waves synch up.
And when all that synching and loving and coupling happens, the perception of pain is reduced. Wowzers.
“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” said Goldstein, in a press release for the study. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
Although Goldstein and others have previously studied the science of “interpersonal synchronization,” where people end up “mirroring” the emotions of those they are close to, this is the first study to look at how brain waves can synchronize in couples this way—and how physical pain can be reduced as a result.
Here’s how the study worked. The researchers recruited 22 heterosexual couples, ranging in age from 23 to 32. All of the couples had been together for at least a year. They were each put through a series of two-minutes scenarios, during which their brainwaves were measured via electroencephalography (EEG).
The scenarios the couples participated in included sitting together without touching, sitting together while holding hands, and sitting in separate rooms. After doing this once, a pain dimension was added in the form of mild heat that was applied to the woman’s arm. In both instances, the brain waves of the participants were measured and compared.
CU Boulder Today explained the study results: “Merely being in each other’s presence, with or without touch, was associated with some brain wave synchronicity in the alpha mu band, a wavelength associated with focused attention. If they held hands while she was in pain, the coupling increased the most.”
But get this: When the woman was in pain, but her partner couldn’t touch her, all those lovely brain waves and connections disappeared, which led the researchers to conclude that it was the touch specifically that reduced the pain.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back,” Goldstein explained.
Touch can take the exchange of love and kindness between partners to deeper, more resonant level, say the researchers. “You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated,” said Goldstein.
Of course, as awesome and thought-provoking this study is, it has its limits. It was a small sample size and only focused on heterosexual couples. Still, it points to a truth that many of us have experienced first-hand—either in labor, or in other situations where the loving touch of a partner helped eased not just our emotional pain, but our physical pain as well.
The power of touch is a real and totally amazing thing, and to receive it from someone we love can make it all the more healing and beneficial. And let’s hear it for the awesome husbands and partners who step up to the plate and deliver.