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The power of social support for buffering stress



Humans are inherently social and we rely on social bonds to survive and thrive. Throughout history, the importance of maintaining social bonds during trying times has been widely recognised. As the well-known saying goes – “A problem shared is a problem halved”. Being connected doesn’t just provide happiness and pleasure (although that’s a great benefit), it also helps with navigating through tough times. Stress is a common and inevitable part of life, but it’s impact on physical and mental wellbeing is repeatedly emphasised. People often feel a heavy sense of individual responsibility to “manage their stress better” to improve their health. However, social support is a more effective way of coping with stress rather than dealing with it on your own. It almost acts like a protective blanket or shield and reduces the impact on both physical and mental wellbeing.


When we encounter a stressor, our body releases a cascade of hormones, one of which is cortisol. Cortisol helps the body to respond to stress by triggering off physiological changes that supply additional energy and resources to help deal with the stressor. In the short-term, cortisol is helpful and does what it is designed to do. However, when stress is ongoing and cortisol is elevated for a prolonged period of time, it can have adverse effects on health. Some of the repercussions include poor functioning of the immune system and a higher risk of infections and chronic illness [1].


It’s remarkable how social support can alter the body’s response to stress and cortisol levels. Higher levels of social support are associated with lower stress reactions than people who are alone. On a physiological level, this means that they experience smaller increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol when compared to people with less social support [2]. Social support also prompts the release of oxytocin, a hormone involved with bonding and social interaction. Oxytocin suppresses cortisol, further reducing the intensity of the body’s response to stress [3]. Taken together, social support has a considerable effect and acts as an effective shield from stress-related health issues.


Emotional support from friends, family and other close relationships helps with being resilient to stress. They offer a sense of safety, comfort and validation that we all need in challenging times. A plethora of research shows that people with greater social support are better able to cope with stress and less likely to suffer from difficulties like depression and anxiety.


The covid-19 pandemic was a period where we really witnessed the benefits of being socially connected, and where lack thereof led to a decline in mental health. Life became uncertain and stressful in ways that had never been anticipated, everyone was navigating stressors that they have never had to deal with before. A recent study shows that those who felt that they had more social support, the stress and worry of the pandemic had less of an impact on their mental wellbeing [4].


How do I know what ‘good’ social support is?

You may find yourself reflecting on your own social networks. I want to make it clear that there isn’t a specific prescription for ‘good’ social support, needs vary between people. The two fundamental aspects for social support are 1) you feel support is accessible when you need it 2) you are satisfied with the quality of support. It’s not necessary to have a vast network of friends to feel well supported. You could have connections with 100 different people but feel isolated and unable to reach out or they don’t meet your needs, or you may have a reliable network of 3 people that you can call on. It sounds cliché but the quality of relationships really is a better predictor of good health than the quantity of relationships [5].


Here are a few things to consider:


· It’s not one size fits all – Support can come from multiple sources in your life as people have different things to offer. There may be a family member you can reach out to when you have major life event or a friend when you have difficulties with your kids. Some people may be better at providing emotional support whilst others show they care through practical help. Look to various relationships for different kinds of support.


· Expectations of connection – You may have a fixed view of what “good” social connection looks like that makes it hard to maintain. Meeting with a friend for at least half a day, going out for dinner or drinks. It can feel tough to maintain connection when there’s the added pressure of it being a certain way or length of time. Can you be more flexible or try new ways? Technology has revolutionised the way we connect with others and offers new opportunities for social support.

· Create smaller pockets of connection – Sometimes it can feel like we don’t have the capacity to connect with others, particularly in times of stress when we already feel depleted. Build in smaller pockets of connection, whether that’s a 2-minute check-in call, sending a voice note or a photo. Refer to this free resource and worksheet to read more about how to stop socialising depleting you if you feel this applies to you.


References

[1] Hannibal, K. E., & Bishop, M. D. (2014). Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Physical therapy, 94(12), 1816–1825. https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20130597


[2] Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 4(5), 35–40.


[3] Li, Y., Hassett, A. L., & Seng, J. S. (2019). Exploring the mutual regulation between oxytocin and cortisol as a marker of resilience. Archives of psychiatric nursing, 33(2), 164–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2018.11.008


[4] Szkody, E., Stearns, M., Stanhope, L., & McKinney, C. (2021). Stress‐buffering role of social support during COVID‐19. Family process, 60(3), 1002-1015.


[5] Southwick, S. M., Bremner, J. D., Rasmusson, A., Morgan III, C. A., Arnsten, A., & Charney, D. S. (1999). Role of norepinephrine in the pathophysiology and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Biological psychiatry, 46(9), 1192-1204.



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