Social support is often identified as a key component of solid relationships and strong psychological health, but what exactly does it mean? Essentially, social support involves having a network of family and friends that you can turn to in times of need.
Whether you are facing a personal crisis and need immediate assistance, or you just want to spend time with people who care about you, these relationships play a critical role in how you function in your day-to-day life.
But social support is certainly not a one-way street. In addition to relying on others, you also serve as a form of support for many people in your life.
Why Strong Social Support is so Important
Psychologists and other mental health professionals often talk about the importance of having a strong social support network. When trying to reach our goals or deal with a crisis, experts frequently implore people to lean on their friends and family for support.
Research has also demonstrated the link between social relationships and many different aspects of health and wellness.1 Poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness and has been shown to alter brain function and increase the risk of the following:
- Alcohol use
- Cardiovascular disease
- In one study of middle-aged men over a seven-year period, those with strong social and emotional support were less likely to die than those who lacked such relationships.
So, which aspects of our social environments are so vital to health? And how exactly do our social environments impact our overall well-being? There are two essential aspects of our social worlds that contribute to health: social support and social integration.3
Social support refers to the psychological and material resources provided by a social network to help individuals cope with stress. Such social support may come in different forms, and might involve:
- Helping a person with various daily tasks when they are ill or offering financial assistance when they are in need
- Giving advice to a friend when they are facing a difficult situation
- Providing caring, empathy, and concern for loved ones in need
Social integration is the actual participation in various social relationships, ranging from romantic partnerships to friendships.4 This integration involves emotions, intimacy, and a sense of belonging to different social groups, including being part of a:
- Religious community
- Social activity
Experts suggest that being integrated into such social relationships confers a protective benefit against maladaptive behaviors and damaging health consequences.
Types of Social Support
Supportive social networks can come in different forms and play different roles in your life.
Sometimes the people in your life provide emotional support. They back you up when you need it and are there with a shoulder to cry on when things don’t go your way. This type of support can be particularly important during times of stress or when people are feeling lonely.5
In other cases, the people in your social network might provide instrumental support. They take care of your physical needs and offer a helping hand when you need it.6 This might involve bringing you a hot meal when you are sick or giving you a ride when your car is in the shop. Such support is important when people have immediate needs that must be addressed.
People can also provide what is known as informational support. This can involve providing guidance, advice, information, and mentoring. Such support can be important when making decisions or big changes in one’s life.
As you might imagine, people in your social networks may take on different roles. A teacher might provide informational support, while a parent might provide all three types. By having a solid social support network, you are more likely to receive the type of support that you need when you really need it.
So now that we understand that our social support systems involve both different types of social support as well as integration into different social groups, it is time to take a closer look at exactly how these social relationships influence both physical and mental health.
Healthy Choices and Behaviors
Participation in social groups has a normative influence on behaviors, often influencing whether people eat a healthy diet, exercise, smoke, drink, or use illegal substances.
Clearly, social groups can sometimes have a negative influence in this regard when peer pressure and influence leads to poor or even dangerous health choices. However, group pressure and support can also lead people to engage in healthy behaviors as well.
Coping with Stress
Social support also helps people to cope with stress. Stress has been shown to have serious health consequences ranging from reduced immunity to increased risk of heart disease.
Social relationships can also help people to stay motivated when trying to achieve their goals. People who are trying to lose weight or quit smoking, for example, often find that it helps to connect with people who are actively trying to attain those same goals.
Every once in a while, it can be important to assess your relationships:
- Do you have enough social support?
- Would you benefit from deepening your current relationships?
- Could you use some new social contacts or social outlets?
You might decide to get more proactive about giving and getting emotional support. It could greatly improve the quality of your life.
And if you’re struggling to make friends or keep them, you might reach out to a therapist. A mental health provider may be able to assist you in managing your relationships in a healthy way so you can have the social support you need to be your best.