Emotional and Social Support

Group of friends hugging

The wisdom of the ages, anecdotal reports, numerous clinical studies, a wealth of epidemiologic data on death rates in married, single and divorced individuals as well as sophisticated psychophysiologic and laboratory testing all confirm that strong social and emotional support is a powerful stress buster that improves health and prolongs life. But what exactly does strong social support mean? How can it be measured? How can it be developed or improved?

It’s possible to be alone but not lonely. Conversely, you can be in the company of others and still feel isolated. Some people may seem to have a large circle of “friends” but the majority are merely acquaintances who do not provide social support. Emotional support can also be obtained from pets, a firm belief in a specific religion, or being involved in supporting a cause, sports team, or celebrity with strangers who have a similar allegiance. Caring for someone can provide mutual emotional support and even tending to fish or plants may provide benefits.

With respect to just exactly what social support means, perhaps one of the best definitions was given by the psychiatrist Sidney Cobb. He proposed that social support was a subjective sensation in which the individual feels, “That he is cared for and loved. That he is esteemed and valued; That he belongs to a network of communication and mutual obligation.” There are a variety of ways to measure social support. The Social Network Questionnaire includes items about marriage, children, a significant other or confidant, other relatives, friends and participation in social or community activities that may involve strangers. The Inventory of Socially Supportive Behaviors inquires about the type and amount of support these sources provide with respect to emotional, informational and financial benefits. It also asks the respondent to rate each item’s frequency of occurrence during the preceding month on a scale of 1 to 5. While these results indicate how much and what kind of social support is available, they do not tell us very much about its real significance. This crucial information can be obtained from the Perceived Social Support Quiz, which evaluates the recipient’s subjective assessment of the degree to which the emotional support received has enhanced his or her sense of satisfaction and well being. In some studies involving the elderly, the role of religion is factored in based on information about attendance at religious functions, the number of close contacts who were readily available from religious sources and determining the strength and comfort that were derived from religious activities. This can be important since senior citizens have progressively less social support at they age due the increased loss of friends and often tend to rely more on religious sources to make up for this.

There are so many reports confirming the stress reducing and health benefits of social support as assessed by these measures that only a few can be mentioned here. Social support buffers the adverse effects of stress on cardiovascular and immune responses, which can provide numerous health benefits. Laboratory studies show that when subjects are subjected to stress, emotional support reduces the usual sharp rise in blood pressure and increased secretion of damaging stress related hormones. One report demonstrated that middle aged men who had recently endured high levels of emotional stress but had little social support were three times more likely to die over the next seven years. Lack of social support has been found to increase death rates following a heart attack and to delay recovery following cardiac surgery. Conversely, a happy marriage or good long term relationship at age 50 was a leading indicator of being healthy at age 80, whereas having a low cholesterol level had very little significance. Emotional support also reduces the risk of coronary events in individuals with Type A behavior.

Strong emotional support reduces the immune system abnormalities that contribute to numerous disorders due to the stress of caregivers for spouses with Alzheimer’s disease. It also boosts immune system function in AIDS and HIV-positive patients. Breast cancer and malignant melanoma patients who receive group emotional support from strangers also live longer and have a better quality of life. Similar emotional support is responsible for the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Shoppers Anonymous and other groups that deal with addictions to drugs, smoking or reducing compulsive behaviors

This comes from sharing things with strangers, getting things of your chest, and learning how others have been able to deal with or conquer the same problem you have. Such groups often provide addition emotional support by utilizing a “buddy system” – someone you can call at any time if you feel you are slipping into your old habits and who can provide support when you need it the most.