Stress

Social Support Rainbows for Pandemic Stress Storms

Be someone’s rainbow by reaching out and checking in.

Posted Apr 23, 2020

“Everyone’s been so nice, checking with us to see if we’re okay and if we need anything,” said my octogenarian friend with a tone of gratitude and relief. These simple shows of what psychologists call “social support” were clearly helpful to my friend’s coping.

Another sheltering friend posted photos on social media of some favorite food items, left on her doorstep by some thoughtful friends. It was apparent how much this simple gesture made her feel loved and cared for. 

Indeed, one of the easiest and most important ways you can help during the pandemic is to reach out to your physically distant friends and family in some simple ways. 

We foster psychological and physical well-being when we reach out to other people. We provide positive experiences in the face of negative ones, meet needs for social connection and belonging, and help people feel heard, valued, and accepted.

Our social support can solve problems or help people cope with them. When we provide social support, we’re agents of stress-reduction and buffers from the negative effects of stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over 40 years of research demonstrates the role of social support in coping with stress and disasters, and in reducing stress-and-disaster-related negative mental and physical health outcomes. For example, McGuire et al. (2018) found social support was associated with a reduced incidence of disaster-related depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following Hurricane Katrina. Some researchers even suggest that receiving social support may “tranquilize” the neuroendocrine system, thereby reducing reactivity to stressors. 

Seniors, and family and friends with medical conditions that increase their risk should they get the virus, can especially benefit from your social support. The pandemic challenges us all, but individuals and their life circumstances vary and affect our experience of the pandemic.

The risk of death is far more real and personal to elders and people with preexisting medical conditions and disability, leading many to review their lives and relationships and consider their death. Asked to strictly adhere to shelter-in-place recommendations, loneliness and isolation and new challenges to meeting basic needs can contribute to depression. And adding insult to injury, should medical care be rationed due to the virus, they know they may be a lower priority. In short, for them, the virus poses a unique personal threat. Reaching out to ask how they’re doing is a simple way to let them know they matter to you, and believe me, knowing this is no small matter to them.

Also in special need of your support are your friends or loved ones prone to anxiety and depression. People with anxiety disorders are already prone to obsessive worrying and expectations of catastrophe. People with depression are already prone to pessimism and dark feelings about themselves and about life.

Under normal circumstances, managing these conditions is hard. Stressful events can cause setbacks. The pandemic has shuttered most community mental health providers and complicated the delivery of mental health services in general. The pandemic is a recipe for increased mental health distress. Social support is a balm that can soothe, boost moods, and distract from worries.

Of course, there’s an extent to which we’re all in the midst of a pandemic of anxiety and distress due to worry about ourselves, others, finances, the economy, educating our children, politics, etc. This makes social support that much more critical for everyone, regardless of preexisting physical and mental health conditions.

And I know it sounds maudlin, but given the capriciousness of the virus and how it often robs its victims and their loved ones of tender goodbyes, now is the time to remind everyone you care about just how much they mean to you, even if you think they already know, or you believe you will both be “fine.” 

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers mental health tools and resources for coping and social support during the pandemic. 

References

Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98(2), 310-357.

McGuire, A. P., Gauthier, J. M., Anderson, L. M., Hollingsworth, D. W., Tracy, M., Galea, S., & Coffey, S. F. (2018). Social support moderates effects of natural disaster exposure on depression and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms: effects for displaced and nondisplaced residents. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 31(2), 223-233.

Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A., & Fernandes-Taylor, S. (2003). Affiliation, social support, and biobehavioral responses to stress. In Social Psychological Foundations of Health and Illness, 314-331.

Thoits, P. A. (2011). Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52(2), 145-161.