A touch of the hand helps people feel more at ease when reliving an emotionally painful experience, according to a study published in PLoS ONE. A comforting touch may also help people process painful memories over time.

Previous studies have explored the effect of touch on physical pain and stress relief. However, the researchers for the present study wanted to explore how touch affects emotional pain.

Participants thought about both emotionally painful and neutral memories while either holding their partner’s hand or a squeeze ball. The researchers assessed participants’ feelings of emotional pain.

The study authors also evaluated relationship satisfaction and whether participants felt any lasting effects from handholding on emotional pain.


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The researchers recruited 60 male-female romantic couples from University of California Los Angeles and the surrounding area. The mean age was 21.8 years.

The researchers found no significant difference in emotional pain felt with or without touch during an emotionally painful experience. Touch did significantly increase feelings of comfort from participants’ partners. They felt more comforted by holding their partners’ hand (M= 5.2, SD = 2.82) than by holding a squeeze ball (M= 2.77, SD = 2.16).

Participants with high relationship satisfaction reported greater comfort when handholding (EMM = 5.97) than those with low relationship satisfaction (EMM = 4.39), b = 1.59, t(74.6) = 2.82, P = .006).

The researchers found a lasting effect of touch: a painful memory that involved handholding was rated as less painful than memories without.

They conclude that, while preliminary, the study sheds light on the effect of touch on well-being. “The potential lasting effect of consoling touch on the experience of emotional memories particularly warrants future investigation, and boundaries on this effect should be explored in terms of when and how changes in emotional pain take place, and whether the experience of such emotional memories is related to other measures of well-being,” the researchers conclude.

“Additionally, future work can build on these findings to more specifically target certain mechanisms that might predict the magnitude of these effects, and explain possible pathways through which consoling touch shapes the immediate and lasting experience of emotional pain.”

Reference

Sahi RS, Dieffenbach MC, Gan S, et al. The comfort in touch: Immediate and lasting effects of handholding on emotional pain. PLoS One. 2021 Feb 9;16(2):e0246753. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0246753