Whenever an expert offers tips on health topics ranging from weight control to addiction recovery to aging better, they inevitably include advice to “find a buddy” or “surround yourself with family and friends” or “reach out for help from supportive people” or “maintain an active social life.” That’s good counsel, but new research suggests that a reliable support system may only help your pursuit of health and happiness if your self-esteem is intact.
In a study from Ohio State University, a national sample of more than 900 middle-aged adults responded to questionnaires that delved into how they perceive their sense of self-esteem, their level of social support, health behaviors including medications taken, and sociodemographic information. They later gave blood samples that were analyzed for a marker of inflammation known as C-reactive protein. Levels of C-reactive protein in the blood rise when there is inflammation in the body. A high level of C-reactive protein is associated with a variety of health conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
When researchers compared the results, they found that perceived social support predicted lower C-reactive protein levels in those participants who reported higher self-esteem, but not in those who reported low self-esteem, even after controlling for other factors. These results help broaden our understanding of the role of mental health in the maintenance of good physical health. This study adds to earlier studies that have touched on the role of poor self-esteem, chronic stress, depression and lack of self-compassion in promoting inflammation.
The researchers speculate that those with lower self-esteem may reject social support because they do not feel worthy of the support they receive. Surrounding themselves with family and friends and getting help from others doesn’t have the same uplifting effect it has on people with higher self-esteem. Instead, it may cause more stress. If that's how you feel, the result is you're not getting the help you need or the health benefits that come with it.
There are steps you can take to boost self-esteem:
- Put the brakes on negative “self-talk” and self-criticism. When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself, fight back with a mental list of your positive traits.
- Refrain from comparing yourself to anyone else. No one’s as perfect as you think they are.
- Volunteer to help people who have less than you. Giving to others can help you feel good about yourself.
- Focus on forgiveness. Forgive yourself rather than feel ashamed or angry when you make a mistake. Recognize that all humans make mistakes; you’re just like everyone else.
- Get involved in more social activities. The more involved you are, the better your chances of finding more of “your people,” the ones that make you feel loved and appreciated.
- Head to the great outdoors. One study found that “green exercise,” or combining exercise and nature and participating in group exercise activities outdoors, improved both mood and self-esteem significantly more than simply participating in a social activity club.
Lee DS and Way BM. Perceived social support and chronic inflammation: The moderating role of self-esteem. Health Psycholgy. April 18 2019. EPub ahead of print.
Rohleder N. Stimulation of systemic low-grade inflammation by psychosocial stress. Psychosomatic Medicine. April 2014. O; 76(3):181-189
Barton J, Griffin M, Pretty J. Exercise-, nature- and socially interactive-based initiatives improve mood and self-esteem in the clinical population. April 7, 2011; 132(2)