Stress and Social Support Research

What Does Research Say About Social Support and Stress?

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Social support has been widely studied as a factor that minimizes the effects on stress, and the results are somewhat striking.  Not only does social support help people feel less stressed, it can actually improve your health and decrease your mortality risk.  Here’s more of what you need to know about the relationship between your relationships and the effects of stress on your body and mind.

Social Support Basics

We all have a good basic idea of what it means to have social support in one’s life, but when discussing research, it helps to be precise.

  Social support, when studied by psychologists, is often defined as “acts that communicate caring; that validate the other’s words, feelings or actions; or that facilitate adaptive coping with problems through the provision of information, assistance, or tangible resources”.  There are a few different types of social support, all of which are beneficial. 

Types of Social Support

Not all types of social support are the same.  Different forms of support carry different benefits.  Here are some of the main types.

  • Emotional Social Support includes affirmations of one’s worth, a concern about one’s feelings, and the sharing of positive regard.  This falls along the lines of listening to and validating feelings, letting others know they are valued, and offering a shoulder to cry on.
  • Informational Social Support involves the sharing of advice or information that can help someone who is experiencing a stressor or challenge they don’t know how to handle.  This includes offering advice that people may find useful, pointing people to experts who may offer advice, and sharing experiences.
  • Tangible Social Support includes sharing resources, either material or financial. Obviously, this can include providing loans of monetary gifts, but it can also involve offers to share childcare duties, helping a friend move, or even bringing a casserole to a grieving family.
  • Belonging Social Support involves providing social leisure and belonging.  This means including friends in the group, and spending time with friends who need support and may feel alone.

    Effects of Social Support

    • One study from the University of Utah examined the effects of three of these different types of social support among married couples, and found that emotional, tangible, and informational support all helped lower blood pressure when individuals were faced with short-term stressors.
    • Another study that analyzed 148 smaller studies showed a definitive finding that social support is heavily linked with health and wellbeing.  In examining the link between social support and mortality, the research found a surprising 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger relationships! This finding remained consistent across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death, and follow-up period.
    • Research has documented many physiological and mental health benefits of social support, including improved immune, cardiovascular, and neuroendocrine function; positive adjustment to chronic disease; decreased depression and anxiety; and effective buffering against the negative effects of stress.
    • Sadly, many people are more socially isolated than they’d like to be, despite perhaps having connections to acquaintances through social media.  Researchers measure closeness of relationships in different ways, but many of these measures show “social poverty” or a lack of social support. It is possible to have a large group of acquaintances but still feel lonely, and many people do.  If you're feeling a lack of social connection with others, you're not alone.

    Social Support For Stress Relief

    Social support can be great for your stress levels, making stressful situations less damaging to your mental and physical health.  Creating a circle of supportive friends may take a little effort, but it is worth it in terms of benefits to your general health and wellbeing.  Creating strong relationships in your life is therefore vital for you and for those you love.  Here are some ways in which you can cultivate social support as a stress reliever.


    Bowen, Kimberly S., Uchino, Bert N., Birmingham, Wendy, Carlisle, McKenzie, Smith, Timothy W., Light, Kathleen C.,. The stress-buffering effects of functional social support on ambulatory blood pressure.  Health Psychology, 2014, Vol. 33, Issue 11.

    Koball, Heather L.; Moiduddin, Emily; Henderson, Jamila. What do we know about the link between marriage and health? Journal of Family Issues, v31 n8 p1019-1040 Aug 2010.

    Holt-Lunstad, J; Smith, TB; Layton, JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review.  PLOS MEDICINE; JUL, 2010; 7; 7.

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