No Man Is an Island. Role of Social Support in Our Lives
The quotation in the title is from a poem by the English poet, John Donne (1572-1631). It means that human beings need each other; we are interdependent of one another – no one can manage well going it alone. Though the words “social support” were not mentioned in the poem, it is a concept that has existed since time immemorial. More recently (since the 1980s), there has been an increase in interests to understand it better, thus giving rise to theories being developed and lexicon (i.e. the vocabulary of this special branch of knowledge) created to facilitate discussion and research. In this first of two-part series, we will encounter some of these as we examine the importance of social support in contributing to our physical and emotional well-being.
Types of Social Support
Social support, as defined by Cobb (1976), is information that an individual receives which would lead him/her to believe that (s)he is being cared for and loved, esteemed and valued, and that (s)he is part of a bigger network of communication and mutual obligation.
It is often viewed as comprising two aspects – the structural and functional (Cohen & Syme, 1985). The structural aspect refers to the measurement which assesses the existence and quantity of social relationships (e.g. marital status, the availability of a number of resources such as support from the community, religious institutions and support groups), and the interconnectedness or strengths within these social relationships. The functional aspect assesses if a particular function/need is being served in interpersonal relationships.
There are various types of functional support: 1) Emotional support provides care, love and empathy. For instance, a highly stressed individual is comforted and feels less stressed after talking to a caring and empathetic friend; 2) Informational support increases an individual’s control and his/her ability to handle difficult situations, by providing knowledge e.g. getting advice on completing a task, or direct, tangible assistance e.g. financial support; 3) Perceived support, the subjective judgment that assistance and help are expected to be provided in times of stressful situations; and 4) Enacted or actual support, which refers to the specific type of support rendered.
Research has shown that perceived support can be more effective than the actual, received support, and that the mere presence of perceived support in itself is beneficial. In other words, an individual’s perception of the availability of support takes precedence over the receiving of the support and is perhaps more important in the face of stressful situations. Social support can promote psychological well-being – it acts as a buffer, or protection, against the impact of stressors by reducing the person’s physiological responses to it.
Social Support and Well-being
The impact of social support on individuals and the society is well documented and widely recognized. Social support provides many health benefits – both physical and emotional health. In times of stress, the availability of social support, directly or indirectly, becomes a very useful and even a necessary coping tool for individuals (Dormann & Zapf, 1999). Moreover, besides its potential positive influence on our reactions to stress (even reducing the perceived extent of stress), social support is also strongly associated with better physical health outcomes (Cohen, 2004). Interestingly, social support can be beneficial even if the individuals are unaware of receiving it, especially if it comes from close friends and family (Bolger, Zuckerman, & Kessler, 2000).
Research literature abounds with information that social support derived from positive social interactions can improve physical health and various aspects of emotional health such as self-esteem and self-worth (Cohen, Mermelstein, Kamarck, & Hoberman, 1985). At the same time, social support can reduce many of the negative emotions and perceptions such as helplessness, psychological stress and perceived threat (Cohen, 2004). Furthermore, social support even in the form of a simple presence of a supportive person has been shown to reduce negative emotions such as fear and anxiety (Epley, 1974).
How Social Support Buffers Stress
The mechanisms that could explain the beneficial effects of social support in cushioning the effects of stress are identified by Cohen and Pressman (2004) as follows:
(1) when social support is perceived to be available, a stressful event is re-evaluated and becomes attenuated, while the perceived ability to cope increases simultaneously. The perceived harmfulness of the stressful event is therefore diminished.
(2) the perceived availability of social support weakens the harmful psychophysiological responses to the stressful event and reduces affective reaction such as anxiety, fear and stress, to it. This in turn prevents or reduces possible maladaptive behavioral responses such as drinking, acting out and withdrawal from social lifeo the stressful event.
(3) when social support is made available by directly providing a solution to the problem, the impact of stress can be directly and instantly alleviated. In other words, social support can intervene directly and result in a reduction in stress levels, influencing the physiological processes or even stabilizing the neuroendocrine (hormonal) system in our bodies. Consequently, with the alleviation of stress, individuals are more likely to engage in health promoting behaviors such as having a good diet, which further provide them with additional health benefits.
Furthermore, it is of interest to note that the attenuation effect varies and one factor of influence is the source of social support, specifically the relationship between the provider and recipient of the support. For instance, if the party giving the support is a friend or family member, this potentially precipitates a different set of effects than what is possible if the support is rendered by a stranger. The support received in the context of a friendship is often regarded as more predictable and genuine. For example, friends tend to engage in more genuine conversations and tell jokes to one another, and more likely to be seen as people who can offer social support and through supportive actions as compared to strangers. The perceived social support from friends is higher than that from strangers.
However, the impact of social support on stress, and how it achieves this is far more complex. Many contextual issues have to be taken into consideration. The stressor-support specificity model proposed by Cohen and Mckay (1994) states that for social support to be effective, the type of social support provided has to match the needs of the individual. For example, romantic songs played over a radio would do little to help a highly stressed driver who has lost his way in a foreign city, but the availability of a navigation device which provides informational support would be beneficial. Moreover, interaction with friends may not necessarily have beneficial effects. In fact, it may cause more harm than good depending on how appropriate and relevant the social support provided is. For example, a study conducted by Costanza, Derlega, and Winstead (1998) has found that when participants were put under a stressful problem-solving task, talking about problem-solving or unrelated content with friends had a more effective stress-reducing effect than talking about their feelings regarding the stressful task prior to the task. The first need is more relevant for the participants, and therefore, more beneficial.
Internet – Bane or Boon
The hectic lifestyle we face today has not only reduced meaningful and quality face-to- face interaction, but also the amount of support we potentially receive from others. Online communication proliferates every part of our lives, and if we aren’t careful, threatens to rob what little face time with one another. How can the Internet, “the culprit”, be leveraged to provide social support at the same time? Look out for this space in the next issue as we continue on this topic on social support.
Cobb, S. (1976). Social support as a moderator of stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 38, 300-314.
Cohen, S. (2004). Social relationships and health. American Psychologist, 59, 676-684.
Cohen, S., & Mckay, G. (1984). Social support, stress and the buffering hypothesis: A theoretical analysis. In A. Baum, S. E. Taylor, & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of Psychology and Health (pp. 253-267). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cohen, S., Mermelstein, R., Kamarck, T., & Hoberman, H. (1985). Measuring the functional components of social support. In I. G. Sarason & B. R. Sarason (Eds.), Social support: Theory, research and application, pp. 73-94. The Hague, Holland: Martinus Nijhoff.
Cohen, S., & Pressman, S. (2004). Stress-buffering hypothesis. In N. B. Anderson (eds.), Encyclopedia of Health and Behavior (pp. 780-782). London: Sage.
Cohen, S., & Syme, S. L. (1985). Issues in the study and application of social support. In S. Cohen & S. L. Syme (Eds.), Social support and health (pp. 3-22). San Francisco: Academic Press.
Costanza, R. S., Derlega, V. J., & Winstead, B. A. (1998). Positive and negative forms of social support: Effects of conversational topics on coping with stress among samesex friends. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 182-193.
Dormann, C., & Zapf, D. (1999). Social Support, Social Stressors at Work, and Depressive Symptoms: Testing for Main and Moderating Effects with Structural Equations in a Three-Wave Longitudinal Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 874-884.
Epley, S. W. (1974). Reduction of the behavioural effects of aversive stimulation by the presence of companions. Psychological Bulletin, 81, 271-283.