Emotional “load-sharing” sounds like something you might see on a greeting card, but it’s actually an important psychological concept. It’s part of social baseline theory, which is the idea that humans are supposed to be around humans and that proximity and support from those we care about is a very important tool for helping us to navigate the world and thrive within it. The load-sharing comes in when you face an emotionally trying situation, whether it’s an actual physical threat or a social one like embarrassment — the idea is simply that being physically close to someone you have a positive relationship with helps you to calm down and handle the stress, because, at the risk of getting sappy, they help you carry that weight.
To learn more about load-sharing, a team led by Jessica Lougheed, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, decided to look at 66 pairs of teenage girls and their mothers, and they’ve published their results in the journal Emotion. After filling out survey instruments designed to capture their demographic data and the quality and closeness of their relationship, the participants were hooked up to devices that measured their level of physiological arousal, and the researcher recorded their baseline arousal levels. Then the girls were told to give a three-minute speech on whatever they wanted to the researcher, “as if in front of classmates at school.” In half of the conditions, the girls and moms touched hands during the task; in the other half, they were explicitly instructed not to. The moms were told to not say anything during the speech.
The researchers were curious about the extent to which one member of the dyad’s level of emotional arousal would predict the other’s, and to what extent physical touch and relationship closeness would predict how well the moms could help de-stress their daughters.
They run down the results:
As expected, physical closeness was associated with lower adolescent arousal, but contrary to expectations, mother-to-daughter transmission of arousal dampening and adolescent arousal attenuation did not vary by physical closeness alone. Higher relationship quality was associated with lower adolescent arousal, higher mother-to-daughter transmission of arousal dampening, and larger decreases in adolescent arousal over time, as expected. Most strikingly, the finding that the effects of relationship quality were stronger in the no touch condition than the touch condition goes against prior research that has shown an additive effect of relationship quality and physical closeness on stress responses[.] Instead, the current findings suggest that relationship quality is more strongly related to maternal load sharing of daughters’ stress when mothers and daughters are unable to be in physical contact with each other.
In other words, relationship quality mattered more for load-sharing when the moms and daughters couldn’t touch. If they could touch, the quality of the relationship wasn’t as important. One possibility, the authors write, is that “feeling the comfort of physical closeness reminded daughters that they were not alone in managing the stressful experience,” and that “daughters with relatively low relationship quality in the touch condition may have been cued to the availability of support by the touch of their mother, which they otherwise may not have presumed to be available.”
The authors note that this is the first study to have looked at both moms’ and daughters’ levels of physiological arousal during this sort of task, and that the sample consisted mostly of moms and daughters who reported having good relationships. So add those to the usual caveats about not over-extrapolating from one experiment. But the broader point stands: For human beings, support from loved ones and physical touch are both very, very important, and especially so when things get stressful.