We all need our friends and family. It’s essential to our well being to be embedded in a community, to feel a sense of belonging and connection.
But how important are other people to us when we are confronted with a crisis?
Very! Recent research shows that social support from relatives and friends in the aftermath of crisis is very important. Filip Arnberg and colleagues studied 4,600 survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by in Sweden. They mailed a survey 14 months after the tsunami asking participants to complete standardised psychological tests to assess their degree of distress and the amount of social support they had received. As expected, those with higher scores on social support were less distressed.
The interesting twist in their study was that they also tested the hypothesis that the benefits of social support depended on the amount of trauma experienced.
The sample was divided into those who had low, medium, and high levels of exposure to the disaster. In the high exposure group were direct victims who had their lives threatened or were severely injured. In the moderate exposure group were those who had been vicariously affected, having witnessed horrific scenes or lost members of their family. And in the low exposure group were those who had minimal experience of the disaster.
In line with their hypothesis, the benefit of social support was dependent on the severity of the stressor.
The implication is that when under the greatest stress, social support is the most helpful.
• We need other people around us who, whenever we want to talk, are willing to listen.
• We need to be able to talk about our thoughts and feelings.
• We need people who are sympathetic and supportive.
• We need people who can be helpful in a practical sort of way.
Why is social support helpful? When we are confronted with trauma it is human nature to reach out to others for support.
In the aftermath of trauma people often have a compelling need to talk about what happened. They need, first of all, to understand what happened. But then, as they begin to understand what happened they have a powerful need to make sense of the significance of the event. What does it mean in the context of my life?
Talking things through can help us begin to put things in context, find a new perspective on what happened, think through how we coping and work out new strategies, and look to the future with hope.
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Arnberg, F. K., Hultman, C. M., Michel, P. O., & Lundin, T. (2012). Social support moderates posttraumatic stress and general distress after disaster. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 721-727.