Why holding hands reduces pain


  • Is our increasing lack of physical touch becoming a national health problem?
  • New research that shows a link between holding hands and pain relief
  • Loneliness can have a big impact on your health

My parents still hold hands.

They always have.

I used to find this a bit sickening when I was in my teens and early 20s… when thought I was too cool for that stuff.

“Uuuuuurrrrggggh, give it a rest!” I’d say.

I was an annoying little tyke.

But now I’m older (not necessarily wiser) I’m in admiration of people who show their affection for each other after many years.

Having gone through the process of having kids myself… and a dog… and mortgage…. I’m surprised older couples aren’t all throttling each other instead.

What’s more, I’d encourage this ‘soppy’ behaviour… even if you’re single and it means holding hands with a dear friend, a sister, brother, your child or grandchild.


Because evidence is beginning to show that this kind of touch is essential for human wellbeing… and can help reduce pain.

A new link between holding hands and pain relief

Last week, a new study at the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Haifa, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It showed that when you hold the hand of a loved one, your breathing and heart rate synchronize with theirs…. as do your brain wave patterns.

Think of it as a natural, instinctive mirroring of the other person.

It actually happens a lot in human society.

For instance, do you ever notice that when you’re speaking closely with another person, you sometimes assume the same posture…? For instance, you’re both cross-legged, you’re both sitting bolt upright, or you both have your hands to your chin.

Well, this process of empathy happens internally too…

And this has a positive effect on your brain’s reception of pain.

You see, the more you get ‘in synch’ with a trusted love one, the more your sensations of pain fade away.

Lead author of the new study, Pavel Goldstein, said that this “illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”

He admitted that they need to carry out more studies, but he thinks it might be that ‘empathetic touch’ can stimulate pain-killing reward mechanisms in your brain.

It also takes away the intense focus on yourself, almost as if you melt into that other person… feel something other than just your own sensations and worries.

This is something I’ve touch upon before in the People’s Doctor…. that loneliness and isolation can be the root of many of our health problems, particularly our sensation of pain.

Why a lack of physical touch could be a national health problem

Way back when people moved around far less, it used to be that we had family GPs who understood us and knew us personally, maybe even socially.

They would sometimes hold a patient’s hand or hug them in consolation. And as the new study shows, this can have a good effect on wellbeing, empathy and pain.

But only last month, British doctors were warned against comforting patients physically in case of legal action.

Look at wider society too…

We used to exist, physically, in much tighter social groups who would meet regularly in person… before telephones, the internet and smartphones…. before pubs became so expensive… before churchgoing and other social meet-ups became rarer.

It means that there’s a big danger of isolation in today’s society, where we’re losing our touch – literally.

Only on Wednesday 7th Match, there was an article in the Guardian with the headline:

‘No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?’

The article, by Paula Cocozza, said:

“Strokes and hugs are being edged out of our lives, with doctors, teachers and colleagues increasingly hesitant about social touching. Is this hypervigilance of boundaries beginning to harm our mental health?”

It also quotes Tiffany Field from the Touch Research Institute at Miami Medical School. She has looked into the effects of stroking the skin and points to these benefits:

• Slows down heart rate

• Reduces blood pressure

• Slows the release of cortisol

• Gives you better control over your stress hormones.

• Boosts the immune system.

• Increased serotonin, your body’s natural antidepressant

• Promotes deeper sleep

I mean… wow… imagine if I told you of a new drug, or a superfood, that did all those things.

And yet this is just compassionate, loving touch.

That’s all.

So I don’t mean to get all soppy, but hugging, holding hands and getting closer to your loved ones really can dramatically boost your health and wellbeing.

It’s not just self-improvement waffle and hype – it’s backed up by science. And it also makes sense. We have evolved as social creatures and the urge to touch is primal. Repressing it isn’t likely to do us good.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out this issue of The People’s Doctor, that shows a link between loneliness and high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and inflammation.


That’s it from me today – enjoy your weekend!


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