How Social Support Determines our Ability to Cope with Stress
Why is it that people with a good degree of social support experience less stress, and when they do confront stress, are able to cope with if more effectively than those without a positive social network?
What is Social Support?
In the world of psychology, social support is considered to be any kind of support (person or pet) that provides emotional concern, material assistance, and/or honest feedback.
In terms of health protection, positive social support leads to:
- Faster recovery times and fewer medical complications
- Lower mortality rates
- Less stress in the face of terminal illness
Why Does Social Support Lead to Better Health?
But, how is it, exactly, that social support leads to better health? There are two major theories that may explain how social support makes a difference:
- Buffering Hypothesis (indirect): According to S. Cohen and T.A. Willis, friends, positive spouses, groups, and pets protect from the negative effects of stress by decreasing the level of rumination (sometimes referred to as "stewing in your own thoughts"), a coping mechanism. Studies show that rumination is counter-productive and can lead you to a negative interpretation of events, triggering recall of unpleasant memories. This type of thinking interferes with problem solving and may reduce our participation in enjoyable activities.
- Direct Effect Hypothesis: According to M. Pilisuk, greater resistance to disease and a better chance of adopting health-enhancing behaviors are a result of this hypothesis. Researchers have found that, during stress, our perception of support, provides a direct correlation to lower incidences of disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system arousal, which reduces the corticotropin-releasing hormone that comes from our hypothalamus.
No matter the reason, indirect, direct, or both, numerous studies show that the greater our positive support system, the less we are prone to disease.
Is It Really Support?
Social support is only effective if it is perceived as support. For instance, we may view our extended families as a burden, while others view them as a support system. To be truly supportive, a friend or relative should offer you any of the following:
- emotional support
- instrumental/tangible - concrete assistance
- information/appraisal - advice
- esteem/validation - self-worth
Studies have shown that people with good social skills (those who relate well to others, are in general caring and giving, and are able to self-disclose), create stronger social networks.
Whereas people who are generally angry and hostile have lower levels of social support.
But are all kinds of social support helpful?
When is Social Support Unhelpful?
There are three instances where certain kinds of social support produce negative health results.
- If you don't perceive the support as helpful; for instance, if you don't want assistance, if you deem the help as inadequate, or if you are too distracted to notice that you are being offered support.
- The wrong kind of support for the event can also have adverse consequences. (Read about Emotion vs. Problem-Focused Coping in How to Cope with Stressful Situations.) For instance, M.A. Lieberman noted that a woman overwhelmed by work and childcare responsibilities is only benefited by concrete assistance from her husband, not just words of sympathy.
- Too much support can actually increase a person's stress. Maybe you have an intrusive type family or are a member of too many social organizations. When under stress, the support offered may feel overwhelming.
The benefits of positively perceived social support are undeniable: our mental and physical health improves along with our lifespan. Acquiring social support has even been proven to have the same level of health benefits as quitting smoking.
So, if you currently perceive your level of social support as low, think about opening up to others and taking a new look at the support you currently have. Not only you, but those in your support group will reap the benefits.