Friends add a wonderful dimension to our lives. They help us celebrate the good times, and they help us make it through the tough times. But there is more to a good relationship than just the pleasure and fun of it. Science shows that having a strong, supportive social network or even just one supportive relationship can be vital to your wellbeing.
Social support has been associated with lower levels of stress and greater levels of happiness. It can improve your overall health and sense of well-being and even increase longevity.
Social support is defined as the behaviors that communicate caring, validate the other person’s perspective, feelings or actions, and facilitate coping with stress by providing information, help, or resources.
Not all types of social support are the same, though. It’s important to make time to nurture relationships that add meaning to your life and are truly supportive.
Studies show that a sense of belonging is extremely important for emotional health and well-being; those who have social support but don’t feel a sense of belonging are much more likely to suffer from depression.
Different forms of support have different benefits.
For example, you might need emotional support, which includes the sharing of positive interactions such as validation of your sense of self and concern about your feelings. This is the friend who is always there to offer you a shoulder to cry on or to cheer you up.
You might need informational support which involves the sharing of advice or information on a topic that can help you when you are experiencing a stressor or challenge that you don’t know how to handle. This type of support can be obtained when you seek expert advice or you join support groups, from mom’s groups for new moms to AA for problems with addiction.
Another type of support that you could look for is the tangible support, which is the one that involves the sharing of resources. This can include organizations providing financial loans or sharing childcare duties with your network of friends with kids. It could be supporting a friend going through a transition, from more serious ones like grieving to more trivial ones like moving to a new house.
Finally, you just might enjoy a belonging type of support which involves social belonging and entertainment, like when you join a book club or a running team, or it could be as simple as spending time with an old friend who may feel alone or is going through a rough time.
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.
We all know that when we’ve had a hard day, being able to talk to a friend about our feelings is all it takes sometimes to turn things around and transform stress with connection and laughter. Being truly listened to and understood can have profound effects on us. First. because it can make problems seem more manageable, and second, it can make us feel less alone in dealing with them. This can help us look at things from a different perspective and improve our perception of stress and the way our brain reacts to it. Finally, the effects of actual contact like a hug or holding hands can increase our oxytocin and endorphins production and reduce the effects of stress on our body and mind.
Social Support and Stress
Social support and supportive relationships, in fact, have been widely studied as factors that minimize the effects of stress, The results of these studies are astonishing. Good supportive relationships have been shown to be a great remedy for making stressful situations less damaging to our mental and physical health. Supportive relationships have been associated with improved health outcomes and decreased mortality risk. A review article analyzed all the research studies done on the effects of social support and showed that overall, social support increased by 50% the likelihood of survival for participants with stronger relationships. And these findings are consistent across age, sex, initial health status, and causes of death. Another research study has documented the many physiological and mental health benefits of social support, including improved immune, cardiovascular, and neuroendocrine functions; positive coping to chronic disease; reduction in depression and anxiety; and effective protection against the negative effects of stress.
Have you had the experience of just telling a friend about a stressful problem and — if that friend is particularly good at listening — you didn’t even need advice? As if the act of feeling heard and understood was all you needed to access your own wisdom and resources and come up with your own best solutions.
So, creating a circle of supportive relationships is worth it in terms of benefits to your general health and wellbeing.
But be careful… Not all social support is created equal.
Sadly, it is possible to have a large group of connections but still feel lonely. This is what happens to many people who are socially isolated despite having “friends” through social media. In fact, research that measured the closeness of social media relationships showed “social poverty” or a lack of social support among social media users. In addition, science is showing more and more that the effects of social media per se can be a great stressor, especially when it comes to limiting beliefs and self-esteem.
Another way the stress-relieving effects of social support can be diminished is by hostility. All relationships are not equally supportive, and conflicted relationships might not actually serve you and can bring significant amounts of chronic stress in our lives. Like when you talk to a friend about something that’s bothering you and that friend responds with sarcasm or passive-aggressive hostility, and you feel worse rather than better. Not only are you still upset about what was stressing you, but now you may also feel hurt by your friend’s lack of empathy and you may question your own feelings and self-esteem.
An interesting research study from Brigham Young University confirms that in situations where people were discussing with a friend the negative events that caused them stress, those subjects who scored high in hostile responses had elevated blood pressure compared to the non-hostile subjects. And this was true both for those giving and those receiving “support.” Another study found that the type of listening and emotional support offered actually makes a difference in terms of MORE or LESS stress. For example, if a partner offered too much advice, especially if it was unsolicited, it created more stress than it relieved. This may seem counterintuitive to a partner who only wants to help minimize the stress by fixing the problem. However, when advice is offered, it might be perceived as a subtle indication that you cannot come up with your own solution. The frustration that can result in the partner who really just wanted emotional support could create feelings of disempowerment and ultimately make the stressed person feel that they are now dealing with an additional conflict.
These results show both the importance of having good listening skills and of working hard to foster strong, trusting relationships with the people who are close to us, so we can give and receive the type of support that is beneficial for everyone. Generally, avoiding conflict is better than engaging in an argument, but it’s much more beneficial to learn to communicate in a way that encompasses empathy, compassion, and maybe even some fun and humor.
For this reason, it is important to practice healthy boundaries and learn who you can and can’t go to with your problems. And now you know, that in avoiding hostile friends when seeking support, you are saving stress for both of you.
Of course, letting go of a relationship is never easy and can be a stressful process per se. Often we hold onto relationships that are not beneficial for us out of habit or a sense of loyalty. However, knowing that negative relationships can actually harm you might help you decide when to let go of a relationship that is no longer serving you, or where to draw the line to set clear boundaries for that relationship.
Special attention is needed in couple relationships, especially for domestic partnerships or marriages which usually involve living together and sharing responsibilities. A research study has found that couples who support each and share responsibilities are the happiest. It is intuitive that if your spouse is able to support you through stressful times, you both benefit because you both feel less stressed. The good news is that these marriages also tend to last longer.
The take-home message from today’s episode is that knowing what type of support to give and receive is vital for your health and wellbeing. And, relationships in which people feel supported have a strong protective effect against stress.
The key is to cultivate awareness.
Don’t assume that you know what type of support your loved ones need; it’s always best to check in to see if the support you are offering is helpful. And conversely, be aware of what types of support you need, so you can communicate that to your loved ones and ask for what you need instead of expecting people to read your mind. This skill is called assertiveness, and it not only helps you reduce the stress in your important interpersonal relationships but in all of your relationships because it helps establish healthy boundaries and reduces stress for everyone involved.
I hope this knowledge encourages you to build strong supportive and compassionate relationships in your life.
Never forget…you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!
Now, tell me. Do you have supportive relationships in your life that make you feel truly understood, accepted and loved?
Write your comment in the comment box on the blog page and let me know.
Thank you so much for being my friend! Your support means the world to me!
Lawrence and Brock (2010). Journal of Family Psychology,
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.
Holt-Lunstad, J; Smith, TB; Layton, JB. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review. PLOS MEDICINE; JUL, 2010; 7; 7.
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.
Claire M. Kamp Dush and Miles G. Taylor. Trajectories of Marital Conflict Across the Life Course: Predictors and Interactions With Marital Happiness Trajectories. Journal of Family Issues, June 3, 2011; first published on June 3, 2011.