Social Support Is the Stress-Fighter You Need
When I registered for courses on health behavior in grad school, I thought I’d be learning about how to help people choose superfoods for longevity or how to encourage the public to get more physical activity. To my disappointment, I learned that educating people about health and telling the public to do certain actions in fact has a very limited ability to affect their health status and behavior.
So what does affect health, if information alone doesn’t typically drive behavior? In my studies, a major theme emerged:
Social factors (including social support) profoundly affect health outcomes and well-being.
It sounds almost too simple, right? If social support affects health as much if not more than diet and exercise, why aren’t there programs, billboards, and products made to help people connect meaningfully with one another?
Given the far-reaching impacts and potential benefits to the healthcare system, I thought this sounded like an enormous missed opportunity.
I wanted to learn more.
Definition of social support
So what is social support, exactly?
The definition from a report on loneliness from the National Academy of Sciences is as follows:
Social support: the actual or perceived availability of resources from others, typically one’s social network.
There are a few important points to note in this definition: namely, that “resources” (an intentionally broad term) are coming from other people, and that it relies on the actual or perceived availability of such resources.
When I first read this, I wondered why “perceived” was included. Here’s what I’ve concluded: even if an individual is surrounded by people, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the people in their life will care if they experience hardship.
In other words, in order to have strong social support, it must be clear to you that the people in your life will be there to support you in difficult times.
This reliability can be demonstrated through vulnerable conversations, prior actions, or some combination of these.
How social support works
Before understanding how social support affects well-being, it’s important to mention the effect of stress on health. Chronic stress creates damage throughout the body because it causes the secretion of hormones that were designed only to be used in short-term bouts of stress (like running away from a bear).
Our bodies weren’t designed to be stressed-out for days, weeks, or months at a time!
That means that even if you’re eating the healthiest veggie-packed diet and exercising for hours weekly, if you’re constantly stressed out from work or personal issues, stress hormones are still coursing through your veins, causing damage to your organs. Stress can undo a lot of the health-promoting behaviors you work so hard to adopt.
Because stress is so harmful, any tool that can fight it can create tremendous health benefits. Enter: social support, the superhero sent to buffer the effects of stress. Its secret weapon? Resilience.
While it’s unclear exactly how social support makes people more resilient to stress, one possible explanation is this: When you know that you have people on whom you can count to be there for you through difficult times, you are better able to navigate challenges.
Furthermore, the relationship between social support and stress is observed in the absence of human connection. In the book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy explains how loneliness causes a stress state.
Not only does social support buffer stress, but the absence of social support can actually create stress.
Finally, social connection influences health through positive behavioral modeling. If the people in your social network practice healthy behaviors, you tend to make similar choices. Positive peer pressure, and all.
Types of social support
You may be thinking “social support sounds fantastic, but how can I actually apply it in my life?” Well, first, let’s start by breaking down the types of social support, and then I’ll give examples of each to make the abstract concepts more concrete.
Here are the four main types of social support:
Emotional support: the providing of empathy, listening; in short, making someone feel cared for
Instrumental support: tangible aid or service (including financial support)
Informational support: explaining of what one needs to know to navigate the world
Esteem support: promotion of one’s skills and value
Some types of support are more appropriate than others given the situation and people involved. Understanding the various ways to give and receive support can make you both a better supporter and recipient.
Examples of social support
To make the types of social support more concrete, here are some examples of the types of social support in different scenarios:
Knowing the types of social support and coming up with concrete examples that you can easily apply makes it more tangible. If you read through this list and thought, “Oh yeah, I did that just the other day!” or “Wow, I wish someone would do that for me,” it’s time to take action.
If you’re lucky enough to have a loving, supportive community already, consider who in your life could use a bit of support and try reaching out.
We’ve mentioned in other articles how helping other people actually rewards your brain’s pleasure areas and creates a helper’s high. Plus, you can see the impact of your support in someone else through the protégé effect, which motivates you to act.
Alternatively, if you’ve been feeling lonely or in need of any kind of support, it may be time to seek some out.
How to ask for support
If you’re like me, asking for help is hard. Maybe you think asking help is a sign of weakness. Or perhaps you don’t want to inconvenience anyone else. You tell yourself that you can do it alone.
Well, imagine for a moment that someone you cared about needed support but was afraid to ask you. I bet you’d be happy to pitch in, and wish that they would have asked.
We can’t expect other people to read our minds. Only on rare occasions do we find someone who truly anticipates our needs before we do. Most of the time, the work is on each of us to seek out support.
The good news? By doing some upfront strategic planning and following a few simple steps, you can make asking for help a LOT easier!
Here are the five steps I recommend for asking for help and support.
Understand what you need. Look back at the types of social support, and based on what's currently happening in your life, consider the top two types of support you need. Often, we could stand to bolster multiple kinds of support. For example, if you’re stressed out from managing the household, you may at first think that you need emotional support from a friend where you can vent about your feelings. But also consider that instrumental help—like having someone help you with the groceries or hiring a babysitter—can actually help you out even more than the chat session. That's why I recommend having two support types in mind.
Ask the right person. People show their affection in various ways. Think of this as their “support superpower.” You often can tell someone’s support superpower by their actions! Who was the last person who called you just to say hi? They’re likely an emotional supporter. Your friend who always brings baked goods? They’re an instrumental supporter. Your uncle who gives unsolicited advice? Great for informational support...depending on the advice. When you match each person’s support style to what you need, you make it easy for them to help you.
Explain what you need. The more specific you can be, the better. Again, it may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but turning to examples can lighten the load a bit. For example, you might say, “Hey, remember how you and I spoke for a while about work a few months ago? Things have been a little rough for me lately, and I’d love to have someone to talk to about what I’ve been going through. Would you be available for a phone call sometime next week?” Be clear about whether you want advice, a pep talk, or a listening ear.
Give them an out. Fact is, if someone can’t provide you the support you need, then no one benefits. Sometimes people are dealing with their own stuff, and they can’t commit to helping someone else at a certain time in their life. Odds are, however, they can point you in the right direction. Go in without assumptions and expectations, and use this key phrase: “If it’s too much trouble for you right now, no worries. But if you know someone who would be able to help me out, could you please let me know?” Hopefully, they’ll help you form new connections that ensure you get the support you need.
Create a plan of action. At the risk of sounding like a project manager, I recommend having some causal but concrete plan of what’s going to happen next. Will they call you? When? Again, being clear is so important. It would be a shame if you don’t get the support you need simply because both people walked away with different understandings.
Asking for support is like any other skill. By getting familiar with it, it becomes second nature. And the best way to become familiar with asking for support is by giving it in return.
Cultivate your support network
What’s the easiest way to start making strong human connections? By helping out others.
If it feels disingenuous to give help just to get help, remember that friendship is reciprocal. Healthy relationships are a give and take from both sides.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind: the person you help today may not be the person who helps you out down the road.
Some people may help you in ways you can never repay. And in return, you are empowered to help someone else even though they may never be able to help you out, at least in the tangible sense.
By giving support to others, you get better at connecting with people. Just ask volunteers.
Every time I've participated in a long-term volunteer activity, I've heard the same sentiment echoed time and again by my peers:
“I get as much, if not more, out of the experience as the people I’m helping.”
After all, is there really any greater feeling than seeing a smile on someone’s face, and knowing that you played a part in putting it there?
One of the biggest motivators of all is witnessing someone having a better day on account of your help. And that’s the key driver of Supporti, the accountability partner app.
Looking for supportive people?
Although it’s relatively easy to create acquaintances today, finding real, supportive connections with people is a bit more difficult—especially so on digital platforms.
That’s where Supporti comes in.
Supporti was made to make it easier for people to access social support for the purpose of goal accountability. The app pairs people together one-on-one to facilitate close ties. And buddies support each other mutually so that they can experience the benefits of both giving and receiving encouragement.
Even if two people are paired up and have very little in common on the surface, what they DO have in common is a shared commitment to give and receive support as they pursue their goals. And that’s what makes it so incredibly effective.
Partners on Supporti provide esteem/moral support to each other through daily encouragement. Partners also offer informational support via tips and tricks, and even emotional support during the tough days.
Creating a virtual platform driven by human connection isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Dr. Murthy sums it up perfectly when he writes,
“Given that our connections with people are both our greatest source of fulfillment and also the ultimate performance enhancer, it is incumbent on technology companies and a new generation of humanistic entrepreneurs to imagine and design technology that intentionally strengthens our connections with each other instead of weakening them, that prioritizes quality in our interactions of quantity, and that support a healthy and engaged society.”
At Supporti, we’re driven to facilitate those strong human connections because together, we can do so much.