Thinking about a loved one might help reduce physical pain, according to researchers, who said their findings show the importance of social relationships and of staying emotionally connected.

The Study

The University of California, Los Angeles, study included 25 young women who'd been in a good relationship with a boyfriend for more than six months. Moderately painful heat was applied to the women's forearms as they looked at photos of their boyfriend, a stranger and a chair.

"When the women were just looking at pictures of their partner, they actually reported less pain to heat stimuli than when they were looking at pictures of an object or pictures of a stranger," said study coauthor Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and director of UCLA's Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. "Thus, the mere reminder of one's partner through a simple photograph was capable of reducing pain.

"This changes our notion of how social support influences people," Dr. Eisenberger explained. “Typically, we think that in order for social support to make us feel good, it has to be the kind of support that is very responsive to our emotional needs. Here, however, we are seeing that just a photo of one's significant other can have the same effect."

In another experiment, the women reported less heat-related pain when they held the hand of their boyfriend, compared with when they held the hand of a stranger or held a squeeze ball.

"This study demonstrates how much of an impact our social ties can have on our experience and fits with other work emphasizing the importance of social support for physical and mental health," Dr. Eisenberger added.

The findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

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