- Strong social support is linked to better physical and mental health, and better response to trauma.
- People who have experienced childhood trauma report poorer social support compared to people without a trauma history.
- There are many ways to boost your own social support, including volunteering or getting a pet.
Erin Beckham, BA contributed to this post. Erin is a research assistant in the CARE Lab at McLean Hospital.
If this past year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of having a strong support network. Whether it was FaceTiming friends and family, Zoom happy hours, or drive-by birthday parties, the pandemic has certainly shown us all that social support can help people navigate challenging times.
At the same time, young adults who were accustomed to having strong social support pre-pandemic may have experienced more of a disruption to their “normal” and are now experiencing more loneliness compared to those who had less social support to begin with (Lee et al., 2020). In this post, we take a deep dive into what social support is and its relationship with mental health.
Broadly speaking, social support refers to helping behaviors, feelings of comfort, and appreciation shared within a network of individuals. More specifically, social support is defined as the perception that we are loved, cared for, and valued by others, and are part of a network of other individuals we exchange mutual support with (Wills, 1991). Our support network can consist of anyone we surround ourselves with- family, friends, romantic partners, coworkers, classmates, or neighbors.
Social support can be further broken down into four types (House, 1981):
- Informational Support — providing information and advice that is aimed at helping someone understand a stressful event and what resources or coping strategies are available
- Instrumental Support — providing tangible assistance such as a service, money, or specific items
- Emotional Support — providing warmth, reassurance, empathy, and care
- Appraisal Support — providing information to aid in self-evaluation of strengths
Even in times when we are not directly receiving assistance from others, we often believe that helpful and effective support would be available if needed — this is referred to as our perceived social support. For example, during the pandemic, someone might be comforted by the knowledge that, should they catch the virus, our friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors would send well-wishes, drop off groceries, or recommend a new show to binge while recovering. Consequently, we experience social support both transactionally (i.e., giving and receiving support within our social network) and by perceiving that we have a strong support system (Tardy, 1985). In fact, research has shown that our perceptions of social support are one of the strongest predictors of how we adjust to stressful life events (Wethington & Kessler, 1986).
Beyond helping us cope with daily stressors (or global pandemics), social support protects against mental and physical illness. In terms of physical health benefits, social support has been repeatedly linked to a lower risk of early death (Herbst-Damm & Kulik, 2005). Relevant to the current COVID crisis, Cohen and colleagues (1997) found that after infecting people with a flu virus, those with more social ties were less likely to become ill, and if they did, were quicker to recover than those with fewer social ties.
Studies have consistently found higher levels of perceived social support to be associated with reduced psychological distress after experiencing a traumatic event. For example, Proescher and colleagues (2020) examined perceived social support in combat veterans and found that veterans who perceived high levels of social support were more likely to report lower levels of PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, mental health-related disability, and greater quality of life.
Although social support has been found to protect against the negative effects of trauma, previous research has also shown that some people who experience childhood trauma grow up to have less social support later in life (Sperry & Widom, 2013). We recently tested whether this finding would hold up within our own psychiatric sample at the Behavioral Health Partial Program at McLean Hospital. We surveyed 234 patients, most of whom were seeking treatment for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.
We found that:
- A history of childhood trauma predicted lower levels of perceived social support.
- This relationship remained significant after controlling for race, age, sexual identity, gender, and depression severity.
How might experiencing a trauma interfere with a person creating and maintaining a social support network? One potential explanation is related to trauma’s effect on emotion regulation. Prior studies have found that both negative and positive emotion dysregulation were associated with negative mental health outcomes in trauma-exposed individuals (Weiss, 2020), suggesting the importance of further studying the influence of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies on mental health outcomes following trauma.
Another potential explanation for lower levels of social support following childhood trauma comes from what has been called the “deterioration model” of social support. Researchers have theorized that due to the nature of certain childhood traumas (i.e., child abuse) as private and socially stigmatizing stressors, many survivors may feel isolated, as though there is no social support available to them (Kaniasty & Norris, 1993). Indeed, a recent review of stigmatization among female survivors of child sexual abuse observed that self-blame, shame, and anticipatory stigma acted as barriers to disclosure and help-seeking (Kennedy & Prock, 2016).
6 ways to boost social support
Given that many people are dealing with the effects of trauma in one form or another, here a few ideas to boost social support:
1. Get a furry (or furless) friend.
Social support isn’t limited to human interaction. Studies have shown that our pets can offer us the same benefits that human social support does (Allen et al., 2002). Check out your local news for adoption events near you, stop by a shelter, or use online adoption websites to find the newest addition to your family. (As an added benefit, this will give you a great topic of conversation to bring to the remainder of this list).
2. Pursue that hobby you’ve spent quarantine thinking about.
Get involved with new clubs or classes. Check out your local community centers, schools, gyms, or recreation department websites to see if there are any events being offered. Honing your skills and developing new passions with a group of people interested in the same thing is a great way to start building your social network of like-minded individuals.
3. Join a volunteer or religious organization.
The pandemic has impacted more than just our way of life. COVID-19 has resulted in widespread job loss, food insecurity, homelessness, and mental health challenges. Now, more than ever, there are numerous organizations looking for volunteers. Maybe your local soup kitchen or shelter could use a hand, or perhaps you could look into volunteering at crisis hotlines. Beyond making a difference in your community, volunteering is a great way to connect with people who hold similar values. Many people find a meaningful sense of connection from their religious community. If you don't have one, consider finding a spiritual home. If you are already a member of a group, think about how you might get more involved.
4. Get outside and enjoy your community.
Whether you live in a big city or small town, a great way to get to know your neighbors is to take a walk through your neighborhood. Related to step 1, you may meet many people in town just by taking a dog for morning walks. Learn your barista’s name, stop and greet your neighbors as they leave for work, or simply take note of upcoming community meetings or tag sales you could attend.
5. Reach out to friends, family, and coworkers.
We’ve all been guilty of not responding to a text, or saying, “I’ll just call them back tomorrow." For many of us, the past year has been so draining that it’s been tough finding the motivation to do the simplest things, staying connected to our loved ones included! Reconnecting with your existing friends and family is a relatively low-hanging fruit to enhance your social support.
6. Join a support group/look for peer support.
If you’ve been struggling during this pandemic, you are certainly not alone. Support groups are a great way to find support for specific stressors — such as the death of a family member, coping with chronic illness, or managing our mental health. Further, these groups provide a unique opportunity to practice lending support to others. Research shows that providing instrumental support to those around you may actually be more beneficial than receiving support (Brown et al., 2003).
Check out the links below to find a support group that’s best suited for you:
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America
- Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Alcoholics Anonymous
Simply put, social support matters — not only to get us through tough times but to protect our physical and mental health. No matter your current level of support, there are plenty of ways to boost your support network. So, take some time to connect with your community and the folks around you. Small steps lead to big changes, so set small and achievable goals (e.g., look up a support group online). By increasing your own social support, you’re also helping other people increase theirs.
Lee, C. M., Cadigan, J. M., Rhew, I. C. (2020). Increases in loneliness among young adults during the covid-19 pandemic and association with increases in mental health problems. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(5), 714-717.
Wills, T. A. (1991). Social support and interpersonal relationships. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 12. Prosocial behavior (p. 265–289). Sage Publications, Inc.
House JS. Work stress and social support. Addison-Wesley; Reading, MA: 1981.
Tardy, C. H. (1985). Social support measurement. American journal of community psychology, 13(2), 187.
Wethington, E., & Kessler, R. C. (1986). Perceived support, received support, and adjustment to stressful life events. Journal of Health and Social behavior, 78-89.
Herbst-Damm, K. L., & Kulik, J. A. (2005). Volunteer support, marital status, and the survival times of terminally ill patients. Health Psychology, 24(2), 225.
Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Rabin, B. S., & Gwaltney, J. M. (1997). Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. Jama, 277(24), 1940-1944.
Proescher, E., Aase, D. M., Passi, H. M., Greenstein, J. E., Schroth, C., & Phan, K. L. (2020). Impact of Perceived Social Support on Mental Health, Quality of Life, and Disability in Post–9/11 US Military Veterans. Armed Forces & Society, 0095327X20919922.
Sperry, D. M., & Widom, C. S. (2013). Child abuse and neglect, social support, and psychopathology in adulthood: a prospective investigation. Child abuse & neglect, 37(6), 415–425. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2013.02.006
Weiss, N. H., Forkus, S. R., Contractor, A. A., & Dixon-Gordon, K. L. (2020). The interplay of negative and positive emotion dysregulation on mental health outcomes among trauma-exposed community individuals. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 219.
Kaniasty, K., & Norris, F. H. (1993). A test of the social support deterioration model in the context of natural disaster. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64(3), 395.
Kennedy, A. C., & Prock, K. A. (2018). “I still feel like I am not normal”: A review of the role of stigma and stigmatization among female survivors of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(5), 512-527.
Allen, K., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic medicine, 64(5), 727-739.
Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological science, 14(4), 320-327.