Coping with Stress and Uncertainty

Building Social Support

Question: What is one of the best predictors of whether or not a person will successfully improve a health habit such as managing stress, stopping smoking, or changing their eating patterns?

Answer: Social support

Social support is believed to protect people from disease, and has been strongly linked to better health practices. In addition, social support has been associated with better coping ability, reduced anxiety and higher perceived well-being, life satisfaction, and happiness.

Types of Support

There are several types of social support. Most of them fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Informational: People who offer informational support provide factual information specific to your situation. Sometimes people who provide informational support are professionals (e.g., wellness coaches, financial advisors); sometimes they are people who have been through similar circumstances and have gained knowledge from their experiences.
  • Emotional: When people give emotional support they bolster your emotional wellbeing. They may listen to you and allow you to express your feelings. They may give you a hug or call to see how you are doing.
  • Practical: People providing practical support help with specific tasks that enable you to take better care of yourself. These can be things like running errands, helping with work tasks, or watching children.

It's a good idea to cultivate several kinds of support. Most people find that the type of support they need varies depending on their circumstances. Also, you may find that different people in your life are better suited to provide different types of support. As a single mother of a young child, I am greatly indebted to the family and friends who provide support. But everyone doesn’t provide all forms of support. My sister for instance, is a great source of informational support—she has raised three daughters and is the voice of experience for me. But she lives in North Carolina, so she is not able to provide practical support. Fortunately, some of my in-town friends graciously help out by doing things like picking up a few items at the store when my child is ill or picking him up at daycare if I have to work late. These friends are lifesavers for me, but they don’t all have children, so they can’t provide the kind of informational support that my sister does. Then there is the friend who is there to listen to me when I feel overwhelmed—no judgment, no advice, just a shoulder to lean on and an ear to hear.

Finding, Asking for Support

Sometimes people are hesitant to seek out support. This may be due to concerns about rejection or not wanting to appear weak. Remember that everyone needs help from time to time. You have probably helped others in the past and will do so in the future. The following may help you reach out and ask for the support you need:

  • Write down the things that you need help with. Be specific.
  • Write down the names of people who might support you in different ways. Your list might include your partner, children, other family members, friends, support group, co-workers, clergy, neighbors, or health care providers.
  • Look at your two lists. Think about who you can ask to help with each of the things you need assistance with.
  • When asking for support, be open and direct about what you need. Compliment each person on any support they already provide. Then suggest any new or different approaches that would be helpful. Tell each person exactly what he or she can do to help you. You might ask one person to be available to listen when you are upset. You might ask someone else to help with a chore and another person to provide factual information.
  • Follow up: Most people are happy to help out. Be sure to follow up by thanking your support team and sharing any progress you are making on your goals. Tell them specifically how their support has helped you. People like to know that they are helping others—hearing that their support is having benefits will be encouraging to them.

Help Others, Help Yourself

Research shows that being of service to others also benefits your own health. Studies have identified the following health enhancing effects of volunteering:

  • Lower rates of mortality
  • Better physical and mental health
  • Stronger social ties
  • Greater self-worth and trust
  • Protection from social isolation
  • Greater sense of purpose
  • Enhanced life satisfaction
  • Lower levels of depression

So, whether you are seeking social support from others, providing support through service, or simply spending more time in social activities, make an effort to get a regular dose of "social." Your health depends on it!

Source: Michele Guerra, MS, CHES, Director, Campus Wellbeing Services