Holding a partner’s hand while processing painful memories can weaken the lasting effects of emotional pain

Consoling touch helps facilitate the processing of painful memories, according to findings published in PLOS One. The study found that while handholding does not immediately reduce emotional pain, it appears to reduce the experience of prolonged distress.

Emotional pain is commonly experienced and often has a more profound impact on the sufferer than physical pain. Such psychological pain lies at the heart of various mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking. Social support such as sharing one’s feelings with loved ones is said to facilitate the processing of emotional pain, but researchers Razia S. Sahi and her colleagues say there may be more subtle ways to secure comfort from others — like consoling touch.

“Consoling touch is a powerful form of social support across cultures and species, but we still don’t have a complete picture of how touch shapes experiences of emotional pain, like the experience of loss,” said Sahi, a doctoral student and member of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab at UCLA.

“We wanted to better understand this phenomenon in terms of how touch affects subjective feelings of emotional pain and comfort, and to see whether it has any potential lasting effects on the way that people process autobiographical emotional pain.”

Research has already documented the alleviating effects of touch when it comes to physical pain, but the field has yet to determine whether touch can similarly reduce emotional pain. A research team led by Sahi aimed to explore whether holding a romantic partner’s hand while processing a painful memory would be associated with a less distressing experience.

The researchers recruited a sample of 60 university-age couples who had been together for an average of 7 months. Within each couple, one partner was assigned to be the storyteller and the other was assigned to be the listener.

At an initial lab session, the storytellers related 4-5 stories from their past alone in a room while in front of a video camera. Two of the stories were neutral, and 2-3 stories were emotional (e.g., involving betrayal, loss). After recounting each experience, the storytellers gave ratings from 1 to 10 for how hurt, sad, angry, or emotional they felt, and how much pain, or stress/anxiety they felt. These ratings were averaged into a single measure denoting their emotional pain during the task.

A week later, both partners returned to the lab for session 2. Here, each couple watched the recordings of 2 neutral and 2 negative videos that were recorded by the storyteller at the first session. Importantly, during the watching of each video, the couples were instructed to either hold hands or to squeeze a stress ball. Following each video, the storytellers completed the same assessments as the first session to describe their emotional pain during the task, and a new measure of how comforted they felt by their partner during the task.

Interestingly, the researchers found no significant differences between the levels of emotional pain reported by storytellers during the handholding condition versus the stress ball condition (after controlling for the emotional pain at first recall). In other words, holding a partner’s hand did not appear to reduce the immediate emotional pain felt by storytellers while watching the distressing videos. It did, however, lead to increased feelings of comfort.

Interestingly, handholding did appear to have a diminishing effect on emotional pain in the long term. Between 1 and 7 months after the lab sessions, the storytellers completed an additional survey where they were reminded of the emotional memories they had shared and were asked to rate how much emotional pain they had experienced at the time of the event and how much emotional pain they felt now when recalling the event.

At this follow-up survey, storytellers reported less emotional pain associated with the memory that had been processed while holding their partner’s hand, compared to the memory they had processed while holding a stress ball. The researchers suggest that consoling touch from a partner may have created a feeling of safety that reduced the painful feelings associated with the negative memory. Overall, the authors say their findings suggest that while consoling touch can assuage both physical and emotional pain, the processes through which this happens are somewhat different.

“The main take-away is that while touch provides a source of comfort during emotional pain, it may not actually reduce immediate subjective emotional pain related to personally significant events, in the same way that it has been shown to reduce subjective reports of physical pain,” Sahi told PsyPost.

“This could be a good thing, since, unlike physical pain, emotional pain may need to be processed and experienced in order to be adaptively regulated over time. Indeed, this idea may help explain our finding that touch reduced lasting emotional pain associated with autobiographical memories, but not immediate pain.”

“These results are somewhat surprising and further research is needed in order for us to have a clearer sense of what is happening during the provision of social support via consoling touch in emotional contexts,” Sahi added.

The study, “The comfort in touch: Immediate and lasting effects of handholding on emotional pain”, was authored by Razia S. Sahi, Macrina C. Dieffenbach, Siyan Gan, Maya Lee, Laura I. Hazlett, Shannon M. Burns, Matthew D. Lieberman, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, and Naomi Eisenberger.