Monday, August 6, 2007

Social Support

by Kylie Taylor

When times are rough, most people use those around them such as friends, family members, and co-workers to vent, soothe, and appease their fears and troubles. Having someone to lean on in times of need is good for our health and can make our burden seem less. “Even for the client who is a self-proclaimed loner or free spirit, absence of companionship occasionally leads to despair” (Pearson, 1986, 390).

Social support can come in many different forms and has numerous definitions. It can take the form of emotional support, informational support, and instrumental support, among others (Wikipedia). “Social support is not a single concept, but rather is a category of concepts related to the beneficial effects of social relationships” (Isaksson et al., 2007, 23). For the most part, social support is seen as a positive way to relieve stress by eliciting the help of others.

Three types of social support (based on the Wikipedia)

Emotional support involves expressing care and concern for those in need. Examples of emotional support include telling friends and loved ones going through hard times that they are loved and cared for, and letting them know that you will be there for them no matter what.

Informational support involves gathering information from those around you in order to make a task more manageable. An example of informational support comes from asking a friend or co-worker how to complete a task that you are having difficulty with.

Instrumental support involves more tangible support in order to get us through our day to day lives. Examples of instrumental support include loaning or giving money to those having financial troubles and assisting with child care.

What does social support do for us?

Judith E. Pearson explains how socially supportive relationships can improve both physical and mental health. Pearson explains that social support “is an asset to coping that contributes to the ‘striving sentiments’ for love, security, self-expression, recognition, belonging, and sexual satisfaction” (Pearson, 390).

Pearson writes briefly of a study conducted by Miller, Ingham, and Davidson (1976), which showed that having those around to count on for social support was “associated with fewer psychiatric symptoms and improved coping skills.” She writes of the importance of counselors in identifying good sources of social support for clients in order to alleviate some of their stress and aid in their coping as well as helping clients to identify those relationships that are detrimental to their physical and mental health (Pearson, 392).

Interesting topics in social support and health

Evans et al. (1989) conducted a study to assess the effects of crowding on psychological health and what effects crowding has on social support. They wanted to test the hypothesis that “the breakdown of social support under high density living conditions accounts for the relation between crowding and poorer psychological health” (Evans et al., 994). The results of their study confirmed their hypothesis that the more density in a household, the less social support received and the greater negative psychological symptoms experienced. (Editor's Note: It may strike some readers as paradoxical that having more people around can actually reduce the quality of social support. AR)

People living in high density households crave alone time more than those in low density households, which might account for some of the social support breakdown (Evans et al., 996). Although social support might be more fragile in high density homes, social support did mediate “the negative effects of perceived crowding on psychological symptoms” (Evans et al., 996). Because social support is good for our well-being, it is best for our health to live in low to medium density homes.

Social support as motivation

Isaksson and colleagues conducted a study of women who had sustained spinal cord injuries and their motivation to engage in day to day activities, or occupation. They define occupation as “...everything people do to occupy themselves, including looking after themselves (self-care), enjoying life (leisure), and contributing to the social and economic fabric of their communities (productivity)” (Isaksson et al., 23).

They discovered that when an injury is sustained that inhibits someone from engaging in occupations, social support is needed as a way to continue these occupations and also gives the person esteem, in that they have people able and willing to aid them in these tasks. They found that people who had social support in these times found motivation to complete these occupations. “Motivation became evident through the women’s descriptions of social support, where confidence and togetherness were two important factors” (Isaksson et al., 26).

Social bonds and health

DeVries et al. (2006) conducted a study that put a medical spin on the connections between stress, social bonds, and healing. “Social interactions profoundly influence physiology and behavior. Depending on the specific animal and circumstances, they can be a source of stress or a means of reducing stress” (DeVries et al., 588). They studied stress in rats and hamsters and discovered that healing wounds is a much slower process when stress-induced corticosterone is released. However, those rats and hamsters that formed social bonds, therefore reducing their stress, actually healed wounds faster by the release of oxytocin through physical contact (DeVries et al., 587). This article shows that not only does social support and social bonds help our mental health, but they can also help our physical health.


DeVries et al. (2006). Social influences on stress responses and health. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 32, 587-603.

Evans et al. (1989). Residential density and psychological health: The mediating effects of social support. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 994-999.

Isaksson, G., Lexell, J., & Skar, L. (2007). Social support provides motivation and ability to participate in occupation. OTJR: Occupation, Participation, and Health, 27, 23-30.

Pearson, J. (1986). The definition and measurement of social support. Journal of Counseling and Development, 64, 390-395.