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Holding hands with your partner during a scary movie reduces anxiety, research shows


Watching a scary movie? Hold your partner’s hand! Holding on to a loved one in stressful moments reduces anxiety, study shows

  • Scientists measured stress levels in 83 couples while watching scary movies
  • When holding hands, the blood pressure was lower and the pupil smaller
  • This indicates that holding hands can reduce anxiety in stressful situations

From The Conjuring to A Quiet Place, scary movies have been a favorite among movie buffs for generations.

If watching scary movies gives you nightmares for weeks on end, there’s good news, as new research has found that holding the hand of a loved one can help reduce anxiety levels.

Researchers measured the stress levels of moviegoers using blood pressure readings and eye trackers, both while holding their partner’s hand and while watching alone.

The results suggest that holding on to a loved one can make scary movies less scary, especially for married couples.

If watching scary movies gives you nightmares for weeks, there’s good news, as new research has shown that holding a loved one’s hand can help reduce levels of anxiety (stock image)


dr. Curtis Reisinger, a clinical psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital, told New York Magazine that the “fight or flight” response to stress is too simple and that there are other ways humans have evolved to adapt to stress.

The six responses to stress are:

  1. Fighting: Fighting a Threat
  2. Flight: on the run from a threat
  3. Freeze: Freeze and do nothing in response to a threat
  4. Flooding: Being flooded with emotions in response to a threat
  5. Fawn: to cooperate or submit to someone’s threat or kidnapper
  6. Fatigue: feeling tired and/or sleeping in response to a threat

Choosing to sleep in a time of danger seems counterintuitive, but said Dr. Reisinger, stress consumes energy quickly.

When someone undergoes a lot of mental or physical tasks, he said, they consume glucose in the brain.

The brain requires large amounts of energy, and napping in response to stressful situations is a way for the body to replenish low glucose levels in the brain.

However, this type of stress response is most commonly seen in children and infants.

dr. Reisinger says children have limited resources to reduce stress, and as such, they use sleep as a way to deal with stress.

With energy levels restored, people are better able to cope with their stress and put their challenges into perspective — and the same concept applies to eating sweets in response to stress.

The finding was based on 83 couples in the US who either held hands or sat separately while shown video clips.

Stress levels were measured by blood pressure measurements and eye trackers measuring pupil dilation.

The films were I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Alaska’s Wild Denali.

The first two were selected to induce fear and the third a neutral response.

Lead author Dr. Tyler Graff, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah, said: “The horror video clips elicited a stress response.

“There were significant differences between the conditions for support and non-support – as well as the conditions for the quality of the marital relationship.”

Participants who held hands — and had a strong relationship — felt much less stressed.

Humans have the unique ability to trigger the stress or anxiety response to threats that sometimes aren’t even real.

Horror movies exploit this to elicit very real fear and stress responses in moviegoers, even when no threat is present.

dr. Graff said, “Importantly, receiving emotional support can mitigate the effects through stress buffering.”

When individuals become stressed, their pupils dilate — fluctuations controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

This includes responding to stressors and enhancing the fight-or-flight response by the sympathetic nervous system.

Emotional support in the form of holding a spouse’s hand influenced the acute stress response – especially in high-quality relationships.

dr. Graff said: “When exposed to the horror video clips, the participants showed increased pupil dilation.

‘Individuals who received emotional support, in the form of a hand-holding, showed a weaker pupillary stress response.

“Those in supportive marital relationships will benefit more from emotional marital support than those in ambivalent ones.”

The clips ranged from 31 seconds to 78 seconds. Horror movie scenes had at least one “frightening startle response” to get the contestant to react.

Participants who received emotional support (blue), in the form of hand holding, showed a weaker pupillary stress response.  Those in supportive marital relationships benefited more from emotional support from the marriage than those in ambivalent relationships

Participants who received emotional support (blue), in the form of hand holding, showed a weaker pupillary stress response. Those in supportive marital relationships benefited more from emotional support from the marriage than those in ambivalent relationships

Volunteers were asked how often they watched horror movies and “did you find holding your partner supportive?”

The results are based on previous research by the same team that marital emotional support dampens the acute stress response of the ANS.

They are “directly applicable to married couples,” explains Graff.

dr. Graff said: ‘This effect was observed in a generalizable, real-life stressor – horror movies.

“If you want to experience less stress reactivity while watching a horror movie, watch while holding your partner’s hand.

“In addition, you should take a moment before the movie starts to make sure you have a supportive marital relationship.”


The pupil is the opening in the center of the iris (the structure that gives our eyes their color).

The pupil’s function is to allow light to enter the eye, where it is then focused on the retina.

The black color of the pupil is because the light passing through it is then absorbed by the retina – meaning no light is reflected.

The size of the pupil and how much light enters is determined by the muscles in the iris.

One muscle narrows the pupil opening and another iris muscle widens the pupil.

In low light, the pupil dilates to allow more light to reach the retina to improve night vision.

In bright conditions, the pupil constricts to limit the amount of light entering the eye.



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