How Social Support Contributes to Psychological Health

Friends can provide social support.
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Social support is often identified as a key component of solid relationships and strong psychological health, but what exactly does it mean? Essentially, social support involves having a network of family and friends that you can turn to in times of need. Whether you are facing a personal crisis and need immediate assistance or just want to spend time with people who care about you, these relationships play a critical role in how you function in your day to day life.

It is social support that builds people up during times of stress and often gives them the strength to carry on and even thrive. But social support is certainly not a one-way street. In addition to relying on others, you also serve as a form of support for many people in your life. 

The Importance of Having a Strong Social Support Network

Psychologists and other mental health professionals often talk about the importance of having a strong social support network. When trying to reach our goals or deal with a crisis, experts frequently implore people to lean on their friends and family for support. Research has also demonstrated the link between social relationships and many different aspects of health and wellness. 

Poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness has been shown to increase the risk of depression, suicide, alcohol use, cardiovascular disease, and altered brain function.

In one study of middle-aged men over a seven-year period, those with strong social and emotional support were less likely to die than those who lacked such relationships.

So, which aspects of our social environments are so vital to health? And how exactly do our social environments impact our overall well-being?

Researcher Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that there are two essential aspects of our social worlds that contribute to health: social support and social integration.

Social Support

Social support refers to the psychological and material resources provided by a social network that are intended to help individual's cope with stress. Such social support may come in different forms. Sometimes it might involve helping a person with various daily tasks when they are ill or offering financial assistance when they are in need. In other situations, it could involve giving advice to a friend when they are facing a difficult situation. And sometimes it simply involves providing caring, empathy, and concern for loved ones in need.

Social Integration

Social integration is the actual participation in various social relationships, ranging from romantic partnerships to friendships. This integration involves emotions, intimacy, and a sense of belonging to different social groups, such as being part of a family, a partnership, a social activity, or a religious community. Experts suggest that being integrated into such social relationships confers a protective benefit against maladaptive behaviors and damaging health consequences.

A Closer Look at the Types of Social Support

Supportive social networks can come in different forms and play different roles in your life. 

Sometimes the people in your life provide emotional support. They back you up when you need it and are there with a shoulder to cry on when things don't go your way. This type of support can be particularly important during times of stress or when people are feeling lonely.

In other cases, the people in your social network might provide instrumental support. They take care of your physical needs and offer a helping hand when you need it. This might involve bringing you a hot meal when you are sick or giving you a ride when your car is in the shop.

Such support is important when people have immediate needs that must be addressed.

People can also provide what is known as informational support. This can involve providing guidance, advice, information, and mentoring. Such support can be important when making decisions or big changes in one's life. By having this form of support, people may feel less anxious and stressed out about the problems they are trying to solve thanks to the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or loved one.

As you might imagine, people in your social networks may take on different roles. A teacher might provide informational support, while a parent might provide all three types. By having a solid social support network, you are more likely to receive the type of support that you need when you really need it.

How Social Support Benefits Our Health

So now that we understand that our social support systems involve both different types of social support as well as integration into different social groups, it is time to take a closer look at exactly how these social relationships influence both physical and mental health.

Just a few of the possible benefits of social connectedness include.

Social groups can encourage healthy choices and behaviors. Participation in social groups has a normative influence on behaviors, often influencing whether people eat a healthy diet, exercise, smoke, drink, or use illegal substances. Clearly, social groups can sometimes have a negative influence in this regard when peer pressure and influence leads to poor or even dangerous health choices. However, group pressure and support can also lead people to engage in healthy behaviors as well. 

If you have ever tried to give up a bad habit, such as smoking, you probably realize just how important this social support can be. If your social connections do not support you achieving your goal, it can make things much more difficult. If, however, your friends and family offer their support and encouragement, you may find that achieving your goal of giving up the habit and improving your health much more possible.

Social support helps people cope better with stress. Social support also helps people cope with stress. Stress has been shown to have serious health consequences ranging from reduced immunity to increased risk of heart disease. Being surrounded by people who are caring and supportive helps people to see themselves as better capable of dealing with the stresses that life brings. Research has also shown that having strong social support in times of crisis can help reduce the consequences of trauma-induced disorders including PTSD.

Social support can improve motivation. Social relationships can also help people to stay motivated when trying to achieve their goals. People who are trying to lose weight or quit smoking often find that it helps to connect with people who are actively trying to attain those same goals. Talking to people who are going through the same experience can often be a source of support, empathy, and motivation.

Clearly, our social relationships serve a critical role in our overall health and well-being, but what can you do to improve your own social network? Be sure to check out these great tips on how to meet new people and form new friendships, some of the major benefits of friendships, as well as different ways to deal with loneliness

Sources:

Cohen, S. Social relationships and health. American Psychologist. 2004; 58(8): 676-684. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.59.8.676.

Grav, S., Hellzen, O., Romild, U., & Stordal, E. Association between social support and depression in the general population: The HUNT study, a cross-sectional survey. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2012; 21(1-2): 111-120. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2011.03868.x.

Rosengren, A., Orth-Gomer, K., Wedel, H., & Wilhelmsen, L. (1993). Stressful life events, social support, and mortality in men born in 1933. British Medical Journal. 1993; 307(6912): 1102-1105.

Southwick SM, Vythilingam M, Charney DS. The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress: Implications for prevention and treatment. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:255–91.

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