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Social contact promotes enhanced health and well-being, likely as a function of the social regulation of emotional responding in the face of various life stressors. For this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 16 married women were subjected to the threat of electric shock while holding their husband's hand, the hand of an anonymous male experimenter, or no hand at all. Results indicated a pervasive attenuation of activation in the neural systems supporting emotional and behavioral threat responses when the women held their husband's hand. A more limited attenuation of activation in these systems occurred when they held the hand of a stranger. Most strikingly, the effects of spousal hand-holding on neural threat responses varied as a function of marital quality, with higher marital quality predicting less threat-related neural activation in the right anterior insula, superior frontal gyrus, and hypothalamus during spousal, but not stranger, hand-holding.
It has been widely assumed that emotional avoidance during bereavement leads to either prolonged grief, delayed grief, or delayed somatic symptoms. To test this view, as well as a contrasting adaptive hypothesis, emotional avoidance was measured 6 months after a conjugal loss as negative verbal-autonomic response dissociation (low self-rated negative emotion coupled with heightened cardiovascular activity) and compared with grief measured at 6 and 14 months. The negative dissociation score evidenced reliability and validity but did not evidence the assumed link to severe grief. Rather, consistent with the adaptive hypothesis, negative dissociation at 6 months was associated with minimal grief symptoms across 14 months. Negative dissociation scores were also linked to initially high levels of somatic symptoms, which dropped to a low level by 14 months. Possible explanations for the initial cost and long-term adaptive quality of emotional avoidance during bereavement, as well as implications and limitations of the findings, are discussed.