Holding hands has long been associated with romantic companionship, solidarity, and showing moral and emotional support for a friend in need. A study completed in 2006 by James A. Coan, associate professor of psychology at Virginia University, and his colleagues has shown that the effect of hand-holding and other physical forms of affection, including hugging, can elicit effects similar to those produced by an opiate high.
The study was conducted on fifteen married women who reported high quality marriages. The women were put into an fMRI scanner and shown cues on a screen before an electrical shock was administered to their ankles. During some of the trials no shock was administered. Their anxiety levels were then measured and, as expected, were shown to increase each time a cue was given. When the women’s husbands held their wives’ hands, the areas of the brain associated with stress showed lower levels of activation. During some trials, the women held the hands of the men conducting the experiment, producing the same effect. The regions of the brain subdued by hand-holding were those with a high density of opioid receptors: the ventral ACC, ventral prefrontal cortex, striatum, and insula.
Scientists believe that opioids, which are made inside the human brain, are the source of human interaction and attachment. Jaak Panksepp, a specialist in addiction, explains that all social human attachment is established by the discharge of opiates within the brain, resulting in feelings of love, comfort, and ease. Mother’s milk, which is rich in opioids, soothes a baby in much the same way heroin sedates the nervous system.
Narcotics Anonymous, commonly referred to as NA, is a fellowship of people recovering from drug addiction, many of whom suffer from opiate dependency. What opiate addicts feel when doing an opioid drug, such as heroin, are the sensations of warmth, comfort, and relaxation, which are the same feelings as when someone holds or comforts them, releasing a natural opioid reaction similar to that experienced by a dope fiend when shooting up heroin. That’s why attending NA meetings for an opiate addict are so crucial because people tend to show affection towards one another.
Why would they do heroin if they can feel the same sensations at a meeting? The drug dealer on the corner will never give them the kind of loving support their fellow addicts in the rooms of NA will. The next time a heroin addict feels the urge to stick a needle in his veins filled with opioid analgesic, he or she might want to consider holding the hand of a good friend—or even a kindly stranger—instead. It will provide a similar high without the headaches, cold sweats, and nausea that come with heroin withdrawal. And who ever died from a hug overdose?
1. Lewis, Marc, Ph.D. “Narcotics Anonymous Groups Give Out Opioids.” Psychology Today. Sussex Directories, Inc. 25 Nov. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.