A few weekends ago, I woke up with a nasty migraine. I knew it the second my eyes opened on that Saturday morning—the imaginary ice pick that has plagued me my entire life was back in its usual spot: right behind my left eye.
This time was different, though; I live with my boyfriend now. In the five and a half years we’ve been together, he’s seen bits and pieces of my migraines, but this was the first up-front-and-center, full-fledged attack he’s ever witnessed. He’s never had a migraine of his own, so he can’t relate, but he certainly sympathizes as I writhe around with a hand over my eye like a makeshift pirate and take frequent trips to the bathroom to vomit. Between trips one and two to the bathroom, with a nap in between, I realized he had cleaned the toilet for me, as the daily grime had started to show.
“I just didn’t want you to have to look into a dirty toilet,” he answered matter-of-factly when I thanked him for the thoughtful deed. His Love Language is Acts of Service through and through—can’t you tell?
Simply put, Love Languages are the way we express and experience love. There are five of them and they were coined by Dr. Gary Chapman. You can take a quiz online to learn your own Love Language(s) and how to apply that knowledge to your relationships.
My Love Language is Physical Touch; it always has, and I suspect it always will. So when I crawled back into bed during that migraine, I asked my boyfriend if he would lay with me for a while. I consistently have a hard time falling asleep with a migraine due to the pain, so I knew his calming presence would settle me down. As he played games on his phone with his left hand, he held mine with his right. I fell asleep within minutes.
A few weeks before the migraine, I suffered an intense week-long anxiety attack. From morning to night, if I wasn’t being distracted by work stress, my mind was spiraling into negative ruminations and panic. It was the most severe and long-lasting bout of anxiety I had ever experienced and I was terrified.
For a week, I tried all the anxiety-reducing tricks I’ve learned over the years: grounding, breathing, staying hydrated, taking GABA supplements, journaling, exercising, talking to a therapist. These strategies made a dent, but the only thing that truly calmed me was my boyfriend.
The first morning of the attack, I woke up in a panic and after a failed attempt to sweat out the negative energy on the treadmill, I got back into bed with my boyfriend. I felt my heart rate soften. As he listened to me explain what I was feeling, he gently rubbed my legs, and as I bent over to cry into the pillow, he rubbed my back. He held my hand as I tried to sleep and somehow, I was able to slip into a deep, exhausted slumber.
Throughout the rest of the anxiety attack, I relied on my new technique: touch my boyfriend as much as possible. Every evening when I didn’t have work to consume my mind and the thoughts came back with full force, holding his hand was the only thing that could quiet the dread and re-balance my brain chemistry. He got me through that terrifying experience by just existing. His calming energy and openness to be there for me was just the medicine I needed.
After the anxiety attack was over, after the migraine a few weeks later had subsided, I was out of town visiting my sister and missing my boyfriend. I was excited to see a text from him: it was a link to a study he’d just seen on Reddit that claims holding your partner’s hand during difficult times can sync your heart rate and breathing, and even alleviate pain. It’s a phenomenon called interpersonal synchronization and it’s the scientific proof that all Physical Touch Love Languagers have known intuitively their entire lives.
The lead researcher, Pavel Goldstein, got the idea for the study while his wife was in labor. Goldstein noticed that when he held his wife’s hand, her pain seemed to be less intense than when he wasn’t. The study took 22 couples who had been together for at least a year and had them either sit in different rooms, sit together and not touch, or sit together and hold hands. They applied mild heat pain to the arm of one half of the couple and watched the brain waves differ between the varying levels of closeness.
When the couple was sitting next to each other holding hands, the brain wave sync was the strongest and their pain was milder. How incredible is that?
We spend years building connections with the people in our lives—romantic partners, close family members, best friends—so consider this a free perk. Next time you experience a difficult situation, cling to your loved ones. See what happens.