It's no secret that there's more stress now than there ever has been. Maybe it's a result of having more things than ever to pay attention to, or perhaps it's the increasingly panicked way the news comes at us, or maybe it's that people are feeling more alone today than ever before. Whatever the reason, one thing we now know is that a very simple type of connection actually reduces activity in the area of the brain that is responsible for releasing our stress hormones.
In an interesting study, director of Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Jim Coan, Ph.D., found that when people are chronically stressed and had their hands held by a significant other, the hypothalamus, the region of the brain responsible for secreting the stress hormones, is less active.
Coan took 16 married women and had them go into a brain scanning machine (fMRI). Then an electrical shock was administered to them while holding their husband's hand, a stranger's hand and no hand at all. Not only did the women report less stress when holding their husband's hand and the stranger's hand, but the brain scan confirmed it.
As you might imagine, the stress levels were least evident in the hands held of happier couples.
It's always fun to see neuroscience backing up what many of us have known through experience for quite some time. For some reason, it seems to add validity to it. Probably because we're trained from the time we're young to trust the experience of professionals, but not our own experience.
In The Now Effect, I intentionally reinforce the notion of allowing our experience to be our best teacher so we can develop accurate and healthy intuition. I dedicate an entire section to getting connected with the understanding that when we're connected, we simply feel better and happier. We don't really need neuroscience to tell us that, but it's just fun that it does.
An important fact to understand with relationships is that the brain is wired to make them routine (like everything else). While you might remember holding hands quite a bit in the beginning, perhaps that's gone by the wayside. Good to notice and also good to know that we can always begin again.
Now that neuroscience has confirmed it, perhaps it's worth trying a little experiment of hand-holding.
If you're in a relationship, see if you can set any presumptive judgments aside and recognize that moment choice to hold the hand of your significant other and just see what you notice. As you practice and repeat this with intention, my guess is that you'll begin noticing some positive effects not only on your stress levels, but on your relationship as well.
The two go hand in hand (pun intended).
If you're not in a relationship, it's also my experience that taking time to give yourself a hand massage can be stress relieving too. There's just something about making connection through physical touch.
It all boils down to connection. Connection creates balance and that leads to feeling happier. This is just one little thing you can experiment with, a little mindful hand-holding, to deactivate ongoing stressors, feel more connected and maybe even live a happier life.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom we can all benefit from.
Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
For more by Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., click here.
For more on happiness, click here.
For more on stress, click here.