Social Support and Health

It’s no secret that a strong, supportive social circle – even a small one – benefits your mental and physical health. The feel-good chemicals that get released in our brains (oxytocin and dopamine) help to decrease depression, anxiety, and worry. Even better, close, caring relationships increase our self-worth.

Amazing what a little community can do for us, right?

And when we have more feel good chemicals floating in our brains than we do stress, we cultivate what’s called emotional resilience.

What is it?

Emotional resilience refers to one’s ability to adapt to stressful situations or crises. More resilient people are able to “roll with the punches” and adapt to adversity without lasting difficulties; less resilient people have a harder time with stress and life changes, both major and minor.

In short, it’s how easily you bounce back when life deals you punches.

As it turns out, the social support you get from your circle when you take the blows in life is a very important part of cultivating emotional resilience.

It’s sort of an emotional life cycle: we have good friends, confide in them all that’s going on in our lives (the good, bad, and ugly). They do the same. Caring relationships, in turn, provide social support, which further fosters emotional resilience, and positive feelings. It is a circular, self-reinforcing movement towards health and happiness!

Easy enough, right? But not all types of social support are the same. Different forms of support carry different benefits. Here are the 4 main types:

1. Emotional Social Support includes affirmations of one’s worth, a concern about one’s feelings. This falls along the lines of listening to and validating feelings, letting others know they are valued, and offering a shoulder to cry on. One of the benefits of your affectionate relationships is that hugs, touching, and cuddling releases the happy chemical oxytocin. Fun Fact: It can also be triggered through social bonding, like eye contact and attentiveness.

2. Belonging involves providing social leisure and belonging. This means having fun with other people (family, friends even acquaintances, Meetup groups, clubs, classes)
There is an opportunity to connect with strangers and enhance that belonging feeling. How good are you at making eye contact with when you are out and about? Even eye contact can release that feel good chemical oxytocin.

3. 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 soup to a sick friend, driving them to doctor, sending a card. Think outside the box here! I have a good friend who leaves me surprise stuff in my mailbox. And this benefits her just as much as it does me! You get a dose of dopamine when you perform acts of kindness toward others. How good are you at asking for or receiving this kind of help?

4. 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. Examples: support groups, mastermind groups, accountability partners, networking activities, AA, Alanon, therapy, bible study.

If you’re at a point where you’re building your circle or evaluating the quality of those you hold close, remember quality matters!

Do the people closest to you work as hard as you do in investing in the relationship? You highly agreeable people be careful to not over invest and work harder than they do. Highly agreeable people are conscious about the value and joy that you’re adding to the other person’s life… make sure it is reciprocated. Another benchmark to notice is are your personal or professional values equally aligned?

Remember it’s okay to communicate to your supporters what is and isn’t helpful feedback/support for your needs.

As you reflect on your friends and colleagues and even acquaintances, consider moving one of them into a new pool. Take a friend from the “we keep things light and casual” pool into the “we share our dreams and confide each other” pool. Research shows people who have three to five close friends describe themselves as happy.

Be patient and consistent in your investment of a new connection. It can take six to eight experiences with someone before you feel like you made a friend.

While we ultimately face our own challenges alone, a supportive friend or group of friends can help lighten the load. Those with strong networks of social support tend to stay healthier and happier throughout life, and tend to cope well with stress.

Check back soon… I’ll be diving into this from a different angle: how introverts navigate social connections and how your sense of humor builds emotional resilience.

And leave a comment below! I love to hear how this shines a light in your life or how it resonates.

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