Comment: Supportive touch, rather than verbal encouragement, has direct protective effect in the face of stress.

2007 Jun;32(5):565-74. Epub 2007 May 11.
Ditzen B1, Neumann ID, Bodenmann G, von Dawans B, Turner RA, Ehlert U, Heinrichs M.

1 Department of Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, University of Zurich, Binzmuhlestrasse 14/Box 26, CH-8050 Zurich, Switzerland.


In animal studies, positive social interaction and physical contact play a preeminent role in the control of behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to stress. The aim of this study was to determine whether specific kinds of couple interaction reduce hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) and autonomic responses to psychosocial stress in women. Sixty-seven women, aged 20-37 years, who had been married or cohabiting with a male partner for at least 12 months at the time of the study, were exposed to a standardized psychosocial laboratory stressor (Trier Social Stress Test). Participants were randomly assigned to three study groups differing in the type of a 10-min period of social interaction with their partner prior to stress: n=25 with no partner interaction, n=22 with verbal social support, and n=20 with physical contact (standardized neck and shoulder massage). Salivary free cortisol levels, plasma levels of oxytocin, heart rate, and psychological responses to stress were compared among the three study groups. Women with positive physical partner contact before stress exhibited significantly lower cortisol and heart rate responses to stress but no different plasma oxytocin levels compared to women who received social support or no social interaction. Verbal social support alone was not associated with reduced stress responsiveness. Our results are in line with previous human studies indicating reduced responsiveness to verbal social support by a spouse in women. More importantly, these findings imply a direct protective effect of touch on stress-related neurobiological systems as a possible underlying mechanism of health beneficial effects of positive couple interaction.