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Research from BYU published in prestigious journal PLOS One says having your spouse nearby while you tackle challenges and stress can help you calm down and conquer.

SALT LAKE CITY — Holding hands with your spouse while you tackle a challenge could help you handle the stress the task produces, according to new BYU research just published in the prestigious scientific journal PLOS One.

The researchers documented the stress-buffering effect of a spouse's touch in almost-real time, using the science of "pupillometry" or pupil dilation — a well-researched stress response. Stress triggers the autonomic nervous system, which controls muscles causing pupils to dilate. That stress response is very fast, taking no more than 200 milliseconds.

To trigger stress, researchers administered what's known as a Stroop Test, where a study subject is shown images of color words that may be presented in other colors, such as "red" written in green or "black" written in red. The individual is instructed to choose the color, ignoring the word. It's remarkably challenging and is known to create stress, said study lead author Tyler Graff, a graduate student in social and health psychology at Brigham Young University.

They tracked the pupil dilation in 40 couples using an infrared camera. Some couples were randomly assigned to sit together and hold hands during the Stroop Test, while other couples were completely separated while taking the test. In addition to pupil dilation measurements, blood pressure readings were taken as a backup, as blood pressure also indicates stress.

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The Stroop Test

This study is not the first to show “supportive relationships” improve both physical and psychological health; such findings are “robust,” the researchers wrote in the study introduction. Conversely, “lack of supportive relationships is associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk, depression and poor immune function.”

Support, the study notes, can be actually received or merely perceived. And hand holding has proven particularly helpful in calming stress. What's different with this study is how it shows the "dampening effects on stress" were immediate, said study senior author Wendy Birmingham, assistant psychology professor at BYU. And although all the subjects initially reflected stress during the Stroop experiment, the group that had spouse support and held hands calmed down much faster.

"While pupil dilation has been examined as a stress response, no earlier studies have investigated whether having your spouse with you while experiencing a stressful event, as compared to being alone, could be seen in the pupil dilation response," Birmingham said. "We were able to demonstrate how quickly marriage can be beneficial in the face of stressors."

The "neat thing" about the pupil study, is it can "immediately measure how someone responds to stress and whether having social support can change that. It's not just a different technique, it's a different time scale," said the study's third author and researcher, BYU psychology professor Steven Luke, in the study's background material.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU
Steven Luke, left, Wendy Birmingham and Tyler Graff studied how the presence of a spouse can provide immediate stress protection.

The study reflects nothing about marital quality, just that the presence of and physical contact with a spouse helps, Birmingham said. This study shows holding hands with a spouse brings down stress, but they are already looking at new questions, like to what extent the couples' relationship quality matters and whether different relationships also would have similar stress-tempering effect: cohabiting couples, friends, acquaintances, "maybe somebody you work with every day but dislike," Graff said.

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Graff said it's clear that touch, demonstrated by hand-holding, impacts stress levels, "but we can't untangle that yet. We have the presence of the spouse and physical contact. We didn't have a third condition where the spouse is in the room but not holding hands." That, too, is fodder for future findings.

The Stroop Test produces a reliable, but relatively mild stress reaction. That being with and touching one's spouse can temper that stress points to greater possibilities with larger stressors, said Graff. "Imagine something more stressful, liking breaking down on the side of the road or giving a talk in front of coworkers or peers. The chances of stress are even more."

The question is, would the value of a spouse's support help dramatically then, too?