Dear Alice,

Why is social support important to an individual's health and wellness?

Dear Reader,

To answer this question, first imagine your happiest memory. For many people, this may involve friends, family, or other members of their "social support network." The happiness that comes out of the connections within this network are the result of the body releasing endorphins and other happiness-inducing hormones; these hormones can not only improve mental well-being but play a role in improving physical well-being, too. Being part of a team, community (religious, residential, job- or volunteer-based, etc.), or even caring for pets may fall under the category of being part of a social support network. Membership in these networks may help fight feelings of loneliness and stress (along with associated health effects of these feelings) while helping you feel appreciated, valued, and as though you're contributing to something greater than yourself. If you’re feeling as though your network is waning, it’s not too late to reignite those relationships and reap the benefits of social support!

Social support may help individuals improve their independence, autonomy, and self-esteem, which in turn helps them cope with problems on their own. If social support is lacking, however, warding off stress, sadness, and other negative emotions may be tough. For instance, a lack of social support could lead to feelings of loneliness, which is linked to numerous health issues. Stress may also have a physical impact on the body. When a person experiences stress, the body often responds with a spike in blood pressure and cortisol levels, among other chemicals. Having emotional support, though, triggers the release of hormones that prevent or reduce these reactions, lessening their toll on the body. In addition, research has found that social support (broadly defined) may help prevent stress from resulting in depression. It’s worth noting here that experiencing stress doesn’t always lead to depression, but having social support acts as a buffer between stress and depression.

Support can come from a variety of people and in many different forms. Behaviors that express social support are usually split into four categories, which work together to keep your mental and physical health in tip-top shape:

  • Emotional support: This usually manifests as expressions of love and caring, oftentimes from family and close friends, which contribute to your sense of self-worth. Whether it's a hug or an "I love you," this type of support is the most intimate.
  • Instrumental support: Offering a helping hand or any other sort of tangible aid falls into the category of instrumental support. Examples of this may include giving a friend a ride to work if their car breaks down or taking care of a neighbor's pets while they’re on vacation.
  • Informational support: As the name implies, this includes providing beneficial information, advice, or suggestions on how to address certain issues. Although this could come from a variety of people, one example would be a health care provider offering information on how best to address a medical concern. Another might be asking questions and checking out the Q&A archives on Go Ask Alice!.
  • Appraisal support: The most vaguely defined of the four types, appraisal support is the giving of information that allows a person to further evaluate themselves. For example, this type of support may include constructive feedback or affirmation of ideas or notions (e.g., “I trust your judgment" or "you're doing the right thing").

It’s worth noting that each member of a person’s social support network usually doesn’t provide all four types of support at all times. For example, your handy carpenter friend may provide great instrumental support for your broken table, but may not be the person you turn to for relationship advice. When these four types of support come together, it may contribute to a sense of mental well-being.

Are you worried about having lost touch with some people in your social support network? Fret not — there are ways to bolster social support if you feel like it’s lacking. You may try sending a message or making a phone call to remind them how much of a priority they are to you. You might also consider whether you’re taking some relationships for granted. Do you feel lonely even with a seemingly robust social support system around you? Interestingly, people tend to underreport social support that comes from a family member, possibly because familial relationships are seen as unconditional or less voluntary. Conversely, this reflection may help reveal unhealthy relationships in your life that can lead to this loneliness.

As in any relationship, social support is a two-way street. In order to receive support, you may want to give support, too. Consider reaching out to a friend you know is struggling or making plans with a friend you haven't talked with in a while. If you're looking to build new relationships, check out clubs or groups in your community, city, or school that center around shared hobbies or interests. For additional ideas on how to up your social support system, check out Friends for a first year guy? and Social anxiety disorder: Panicked about meeting new people in the Go Ask Alice! archives. You may also find that speaking with a health promotion professional helps with managing stress levels and improving social skills.

However you find your sources of emotional, instrumental, informational, and appraisal support, they may help improve your mental and physical health as well as add to your cache of happy memories.

Alice!

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