Holding hands strengthens relationships, soothes anxiety, reduces stress and diminishes pain. Unlike PDA, holding hands is the rare socially acceptable public act of intimacy. It can be performed by anyone of any gender, anywhere, anytime, at any age. You can be single, a nonagenarian, a pro athlete or a long-married spouse in the midst of a sex strike and most definitely reap the rewards of holding hands. Grown-ups can still hold hands with their parents, siblings or friends. Under the right circumstances, you can hold a stranger’s hand. Need more evidence of its power? Three words: Aniston. Pitt. Wrist.
We begin to hold hands as infants, but the appeal never gets old. In fact, holding hands offers us all a way to grasp at our humanity in this increasingly digital, disconnected world. But don’t take our word for it. Let’s look at the science. And if it helps even a few people feel more connected and compassionate? Well, we’d like to think we had a hand in that.
It soothes us. Studies have shown the effects of warm, supportive touch include reduced amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure and slower heart rates. Holding hands “buffers the physiological consequences of [a] stressful response,” experimental psychologist Matt Hertenstein, Ph.D., told NPR.
It helps us connect. Oxytocin: It’s not just reserved for our most intimate relationships. Holding hands, especially when we interlace our fingers with another person’s, encourages the release of this “cuddle hormone.” The result? Surging “feelings of devotion, trust and bonding,” per Hertenstein.
It counteracts loneliness. According to Psychology Today, “skin hunger” is a modern epidemic. People are increasingly “affection-deprived” and “touch-phobic.” This starts with schoolchildren whose teachers are discouraged from even placing a warm hand on the shoulder, and continues with screen-obsessed teenagers, who may be more accustomed to offering a fist-bump emoji than a high five in a high school hallway. U.K. psychologist Honey Langcaster-James has spoken out about the profound positive impact of holding hands as we age: “For an elderly person, reaching for their hand can have far more benefits than giving them pills.” But anyone starving for essential human touch is more prone to suffer from mental health issues like depression and anxiety as well as poorer physical health.
It reduces pain. “Touch reduces pain because of the serotonin that’s released,” Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, told the Huffington Post. One groundbreaking study of 22 couples found that when they held hands, their brainwaves synced up. Then, when mild heat was applied to one partner’s arm, her pain was reduced—but only when she was holding hands with her partner, not when her partner was merely sitting in the room next to her. The researchers’ conclusion? “When we feel like someone is sharing our pain, that helps the brain manage it better.” Said lead researcher Pavel Goldstein, Ph.D., who was inspired to conduct the study after he noticed the helpful effect of holding his wife’s hand during childbirth: “It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect.” Sounds like information worth holding on to.