The effect of this simple gesture of social support is that the brain and body don't have to work as hard, they're less stressed in response to a threat," said Dr. James A. Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the study's lead author. His co-authors were Dr. Hillary Schaefer and Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin.
Relaxing in the face of a perceived threat is not always a good idea. The brain's alarm system, which prompts the release of stress hormones that increase heart rate and move blood to the muscles, prepares people to fight or run for their lives, researchers say.
But this system often becomes overactive in situations that are nagging but not life threatening like worries over relationships, deadlines, money or homework. Easy access to an affectionate touch in these moments — or to a hug, a back rub or more — "is a very good thing, is deeply soothing," Dr. Coan said.
Dad often reaches his hand out and we hold it. It is comforting to know that he is being soothed.