To deal with stress, try a little tenderness

We are all probably familiar with the list of ways in which we are advised to cope with stress. Research has shown that we manage our stress better by looking after ourselves physically (eating well, exercising regularly, making sleep a priority), and mentally (talking to someone sympathetic, distracting ourselves by doing something fun). It now seems that we can add another item to the list of how to manage stress. Researchers call it affectionate communication. The rest of us would probably describe it as showing the ones that we love that we love them.

As we know, receiving a message of affection can make a big difference in times of trouble. A pat on the shoulder from a good friend, or a loving glance from a partner, can encourage us to keep facing our difficulties, and lower the level of stress that we feel. Research into brain functioning suggests how support from another person might enable us to see our problems differently, and bring about a reduction in stress. In one interesting study, the brains of women who were expecting a mild electric shock were monitored via an fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine for changes. Some of the women were holding the hand of their husbands, some the hand of a stranger, and some had no hand to hold on to. It was found that the brains of those women holding a hand showed less response to the threat, and that the brains of women holding their husbands’ hands were the calmest of all. Specifically, there was little or no change to the blood flow in the prefrontal cortex of these women while they were waiting for a shock, indicating that they did not need to use the rational parts of their brains to calm down the emotional parts. This suggests that they were more likely to be able to continue to think clearly, even in a stressful situation. It also suggests that touch, even the touch of someone they didn’t know, was helping to protect them from stress (Coan, Schaefer & Davidson, 2006)1.

So, it seems that receiving affectionate communication can help us regulate our response to stress. But what about giving affection to someone we love? Does that also play a part in stress management? According to the research, affectionate communication does benefit those who give it as well as those who receive it (Floyd, 2018)2. Evidence shows that conveying affectionate feelings to a loved one can act as a buffer against the negative effects of stress, and accelerates recovery from stressful events. The effects can be seen physically, such as in better immune functioning, and in changes to cardiovascular and endocrine systems. They can also be seen in mental changes, including in an increase in subjective feelings of well-being (Floyd, 2018)3.

Of course, there is always the possibility of having too much of a good thing. We all have our preferred levels of communication, and there is some indication that experiencing too much affectionate communication can be aversive for some people (Floyd, 2018)4. But conveying our affectionate feelings a little more often may make a difference to our stress levels, and those of the people around us. That’s a win-win situation.

1 Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S. and Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological science, 17, 1032-1039.
2,3,4 Floyd, K. (2018). Affectionate communication in close relationships. Cambridge: CUP