Our lives are filled with stressors: from minor stuff like acing a job interview or exam, to major problems like illness or injury. When the going gets tough, support from family and friends can make things a lot more bearable. That’s backed by research: the way we react to stress has a whole lot to do with who’s around to help us deal with it.
Romantic partners are especially good at helping us get through stressful times, research has also shown. And a lover’s touch – whether it’s a back rub, hug, or simply holding hands – can show us they’re there to be supportive.
But what happens when your partner can’t be there for you? Maybe you’re in a long-distance relationship? Or maybe they’re on the other side of town when you get some bad news?
It turns out there might be a way to get the benefits of your partner’s touch without your partner even being in the same room. At least, that’s what the findings of a recent study by researcher Brittany Jakubiak show.
Jakubiak got to thinking about the many situations where one’s partner can’t be there for them. ‘Touch is so essential to who we are that I was wondering if you could still get some of those benefits when you’re at a distance,’ she told Love Matters.
Could simply imagining a partner’s touch help people get through tough times?
Stress by ice, stress by sums
To test out this theory, she rounded up over 200 participants across two experiments to test the effects of imagining touch. In each experiment, the participants were split into groups. The first group was asked to recall and write about a time their partner supported them by touching them. People in the second group wrote about supportive things their partner had said to them.
In the first study, the brave volunteers were put through physical stress. They had to stick one hand in a bucket of ice water and hold it there for as long as they could. While this was going on, they rated how painful and unpleasant the experience was.
In the second study, the participants had to deal with socially stressful situations. First they prepared and gave a speech to apply for their dream job. Then they had to do tricky calculations, all while an evaluator tracked their performance. During both tasks the participants rated their stress levels.
Would imagining a partner’s touch help during a stressful situation, even when the partner is not physically there?
Indeed it would, Jakubiak learned. All it takes is a little imagination to make stressful situations easier, the results showed.
People who imagined being touched by their partner actually felt less pain during the ice water test compared to those who’d just imagined their partner saying something supportive. They were also more likely to say they could even handle a tougher challenge, with more ice.
When it came to social challenges like giving a speech, or difficult math calculations, imagining a partner’s touch was the best way to reduce stress, the study also found.
People who’d thought of their sweetheart’s loving touch were more enthusiastic about the rather unpleasant tasks they faced. That’s because they may have felt more secure while doing them.
By now you might be wondering how imagining a partner’s touch helps.
Part of it is psychological, Jakubiak believes. ‘You feel like the person is supporting you, they accept you, they care about you. It could be a hug, it could be hand-holding, it could be a pat on the back – anything that feels intimate within that relationship that shows, “I’m really close to you, I care about you,” ’ she says.
But while you’re dreaming of a partner’s loving hands on you, Jakubiak reckons there is a type of touch that works best to lessen your stress:
‘Particularly, it’s when you’re receiving slow, stroking touch; it has to be on hairy skin and it has to be pretty slow.’ If research proves this theory, imagining a massage or hug from a partner would be your best bet, she says.
Releasing the love hormone
Imagining a partner’s touch could also fight stress in a physical way, Jakubiak explains. There’s research to show that when people feel touch, their body releases the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin and the body’s natural painkillers, endogenous opioids,
Three to five minutes of imagining a loving touch should be all it takes to help calm you down if you’re feeling stressed out, Jakubiak says. ‘As long as you can immerse yourself in that experience and not be doing something else at the same time – you really stop and get calm, and imagine vividly that experience of receiving touch.’
- Keep in touch: The effects of imagined touch support on stress and exploration. J Exp Soc Psych (2016) 65:59-67.
- Interview with Brittany Jakubiak
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