Research Article: Supportive hand-holding attenuates pupillary responses to stress in adult couples

Date Published: February 22, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Tyler C. Graff, Steven G. Luke, Wendy C. Birmingham, Sebastiaan Mathôt.


Social relationships, particularly marriage, have been shown to ameliorate the potentially pathogenic impact of stressful events but prior research has been mostly aimed at downstream effects, with less research on real-time reactivity. Pupillometry is an innovative procedure that allows us to see the effects of acute stress in real time. The muscles that control pupil size are linked to the autonomic nervous system, so that when stressed, the pupils dilate; this occurs within 200ms. This quick response allows us to see the immediate effects of acute stress on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the real-time effects of social support in buffering stress.

The purpose of this study is to examine the dampening effects of received social support on the ANS’s pupillary response.

Eighty individuals (40 couples) were randomly assigned to either a spousal support (i.e., spouse hand-holding) or non-support condition (i.e., alone) and administered a Stroop task while pupil dilation was measured.

The Stroop task elicited a stress reaction in terms of pupil dilation in response to the incongruent task trials. Participants in the support condition showed accelerated habituation to the stress task (p < .001), and less pupil reactivity (p < .001) providing evidence for buffering effects of social support via spousal presence and hand-holding. These results reveal the speed at which stress-buffering occurs, suggesting that pupillometry could be a good method to address the immediate dampening effects of social support.

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The research linking supportive relationships with lower rates of morbidity and mortality is robust [1–3]. Supportive relationships are associated with better physiological and psychological health including immune and cardiovascular functioning, lower rates of depression, and better life satisfaction [4]. Additionally, lack of supportive relationships is associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk, depression, and poor immune function [5–7]. While social relationships may influence health via multiple pathways, one of the most widely researched of these is the stress-buffering model, which asserts that social relationships are primarily beneficial during periods of high stress and that these relationships can help ameliorate the potentially pathogenic effects of stressful events [8–12]. Stress is generally defined as “a process in which environmental demands tax or exceed the adaptive capacity of an organism, resulting in psychological and biological changes that may place a person at risk for disease.” ([13], p.3). Most definitions of stress maintain that stress contains key elements including (a) environmental, psychological, and biological phenomena, with an (b) emphasis on process, an (c) imbalance between environmental demands and adaptive capacity, and (d) playing a potential role in development and progression of disease processes. Stress can increase the risk of developing infectious disease, impact the severity of the disease, lower the strength of the immune response, and slow wound healing [14, 15]. Overwhelming evidence has linked stress to the development and progression of cardiovascular disease [16–18] with both acute and chronic stress linked to increased risk for morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease [17, 19, 20].

The purpose of the current study was to examine the stress-buffering effect of received emotional social support on the ANS’s pupillary response. This method provided real-time feedback on the body’s physiological stress response. Additionally, it frames a potentially fruitful method of further investigation in understanding the causal mechanisms linking relationships and health. This novel experiment manipulated received spousal support to explore the dampening effect of emotional support in the form of hand-holding on physiological stress response. We found significant differences between the two manipulated conditions of support and non-support in both tonic and phasic pupillary response. Social Baseline Theory posits that the presence of a spouse would result in less psychological and physiological arousal compared to being alone. Additionally, the stress-buffering hypothesis asserts that social relationships are beneficial in reducing stress-evoked reactivity during periods of acute stress. The results from the current study are consistent with the theories that, being in the presence of one’s spouse may dampen the physiological stress-evoked response, and this ANS dampening can be observed via pupil dilation; participants who received emotional support from their spouse by holding their hand had less pupil dilation in response to the Stroop task. These results extend the current literature by using a novel method to investigate these associations, and provide additional insights into the speed at which these effects happen and can be captured.




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