Social Support and Stress Reduction

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how social support is vital in health and longevity
  • Identify common stress reduction techniques

Social Support

The need to form and maintain strong, stable relationships with others is a powerful, pervasive, and fundamental human motive (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Building strong interpersonal relationships with others helps us establish a network of close, caring individuals who can provide social support in times of distress, sorrow, and fear. Social support can be thought of as the soothing impact of friends, family, and acquaintances (Baron & Kerr, 2003). Social support can take many forms, including advice, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, emotional comfort, and tangible assistance (such as financial help). Thus, other people can be very comforting to us when we are faced with a wide range of life stressors, and they can be extremely helpful in our efforts to manage these challenges. Even in nonhuman animals, species mates can offer social support during times of stress. For example, elephants seem to be able to sense when other elephants are stressed and will often comfort them with physical contact—such as a trunk touch—or an empathetic vocal response (Krumboltz, 2014).

Scientific interest in the importance of social support first emerged in the 1970s when health researchers developed an interest in the health consequences of being socially integrated (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Interest was further fueled by longitudinal studies showing that social connectedness reduced mortality. In one classic study, nearly 7,000 Alameda County, California, residents were followed over 9 years. Those who had previously indicated that they lacked social and community ties were more likely to die during the follow-up period than those with more extensive social networks. Compared to those with the most social contacts, isolated men and women were, respectively, 2.3 and 2.8 times more likely to die. These trends persisted even after controlling for a variety of health-related variables, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, self-reported health at the beginning of the study, and physical activity (Berkman & Syme, 1979).

Since the time of that study, social support has emerged as one of the well-documented psychosocial factors affecting health outcomes (Uchino, 2009). A statistical review of 148 studies conducted between 1982 and 2007 involving over 300,000 participants concluded that individuals with stronger social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with weak or insufficient social relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). According to the researchers, the magnitude of the effect of social support observed in this study is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeded many well-known risk factors for mortality, such as obesity and physical inactivity.

Photograph A shows a large group of people holding hands with the sun setting in the distance. Photograph B shows a close relationship between three people by the water.

Figure 1. Close relationships with others, whether (a) a group of friends or (b) a family circle, provide more than happiness and fulfillment—they can help foster good health. (credit a: modification of work by Nattachai Noogure; credit b: modification of work by Christian Haugen)

A number of large-scale studies have found that individuals with low levels of social support are at greater risk of mortality, especially from cardiovascular disorders (Brummett et al., 2001). Further, higher levels of social supported have been linked to better survival rates following breast cancer (Falagas et al., 2007) and infectious diseases, especially HIV infection (Lee & Rotheram-Borus, 2001). In fact, a person with high levels of social support is less likely to contract a common cold. In one study, 334 participants completed questionnaires assessing their sociability; these individuals were subsequently exposed to a virus that causes a common cold and monitored for several weeks to see who became ill. Results showed that increased sociability was linearly associated with a decreased probability of developing a cold (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003).

For many of us, friends are a vital source of social support. But what if you found yourself in a situation in which you lacked friends or companions? For example, suppose a popular high school student attends a far-away college, does not know anyone, and has trouble making friends and meaningful connections with others during the first semester. What can be done? If real life social support is lacking, access to distant friends via social media may help compensate. In a study of college freshmen, those with few face-to-face friends on campus but who communicated electronically with distant friends were less distressed that those who did not (Raney & Troop-Gordon, 2012). Also, for some people, our families—especially our parents—are a major source of social support.

Social support appears to work by boosting the immune system, especially among people who are experiencing stress (Uchino, Vaughn, Carlisle, & Birmingham, 2012). In a pioneering study, spouses of cancer patients who reported high levels of social support showed indications of better immune functioning on two out of three immune functioning measures, compared to spouses who were below the median on reported social support (Baron, Cutrona, Hicklin, Russell, & Lubaroff, 1990). Studies of other populations have produced similar results, including those of spousal caregivers of dementia sufferers, medical students, elderly adults, and cancer patients (Cohen & Herbert, 1996; Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002).

In addition, social support has been shown to reduce blood pressure for people performing stressful tasks, such as giving a speech or performing mental arithmetic (Lepore, 1998). In these kinds of studies, participants are usually asked to perform a stressful task either alone, with a stranger present (who may be either supportive or unsupportive), or with a friend present. Those tested with a friend present generally exhibit lower blood pressure than those tested alone or with a stranger (Fontana, Diegnan, Villeneuve, & Lepore, 1999). In one study, 112 female participants who performed stressful mental arithmetic exhibited lower blood pressure when they received support from a friend rather than a stranger, but only if the friend was a male (Phillips, Gallagher, & Carroll, 2009). Although these findings are somewhat difficult to interpret, the authors mention that it is possible that females feel less supported and more evaluated by other females, particularly females whose opinions they value.

Taken together, the findings above suggest one of the reasons social support is connected to favorable health outcomes is because it has several beneficial physiological effects in stressful situations. However, it is also important to consider the possibility that social support may lead to better health behaviors, such as a healthy diet, exercising, smoking cessation, and cooperation with medical regimens (Uchino, 2009).

Dig Deeper: Coping with Prejudice and Discrimination

While having social support is quite beneficial, being the recipient of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors is associated with a number of negative outcomes. In their literature review, Brondolo, Brady, Pencille, Beatty, and Contrada (2009) describe how racial prejudice and discrimination serve as unique, significant stressors for those who are the targets of such attitudes and behavior. Being the target of racism is associated with increased rates of depression, lowered self-esteem, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Given the complex and pervasive nature of racism as a stressor, Brondolo et al. (2009) point out the importance of coping with this specific stressor. Their review is aimed at determining which coping strategies are most effective at offsetting negative health outcomes associated with racism-related stress. The authors examine the effectiveness of three coping strategies: focusing on racial identity to handle race-related stress, anger expression/suppression, and seeking social support. You’ve learned a bit about social support, so we’ll focus the remainder of this discussion on the potential coping strategies of focusing on racial identity and anger expression/suppression.

Focusing on racial identity refers to the process by which a person comes to feel as if he belongs to a given racial group; this may increase a sense of pride associated with group membership. Brondolo et al. (2009) suggest that a strong sense of racial identity might help an individual who is the target of racism differentiate between prejudicial attitudes/behaviors that are directed toward his group as a whole rather than at him as a person. Furthermore, the sense of belonging to his group might alleviate the distress of being ostracized by others. However, the research literature on the effectiveness of this technique has produced mixed results.

Anger expression/suppression refers to the options available as a function of the anger evoked by racial prejudice and discrimination. Put simply, a target of racist attitudes and behaviors can act upon her anger or suppress her anger. As discussed by Brondolo et al. (2009), there has been very little research on the effectiveness of either approach; the results are quite mixed with some showing anger expression and others showing anger suppression as the healthier option.

In the end, racism-related stress is a complex issue and each of the coping strategies discussed here has strengths and weaknesses. Brondolo et al. (2009) argue that it is imperative that additional research be conducted to ascertain the most effective strategies for coping with the negative outcomes that are experienced by the targets of racism.

Try It

Stress Reduction Techniques

Beyond having a sense of control and establishing social support networks, there are numerous other means by which we can manage stress. A common technique people use to combat stress is exercise (Salmon, 2001). It is well-established that exercise, both of long (aerobic) and short (anaerobic) duration, is beneficial for both physical and mental health (Everly & Lating, 2002). There is considerable evidence that physically fit individuals are more resistant to the adverse effects of stress and recover more quickly from stress than less physically fit individuals (Cotton, 1990). In a study of more than 500 Swiss police officers and emergency service personnel, increased physical fitness was associated with reduced stress, and regular exercise was reported to protect against stress-related health problems (Gerber, Kellman, Hartman, & Pühse, 2010).

Photograph A shows an exercise room with several treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes. There are people exercising with multiple televisions hanging from the ceiling in front of them. Photograph B shows a person meditating next to a tree. Photograph C shows two people sitting across from each other at a table, each in front of a monitor. The person in the foreground has straps around the head holding up wires or devices.

Figure 2. Stress reduction techniques may include (a) exercise, (b) meditation and relaxation, or (c) biofeedback. (credit a: modification of work by “UNE Photos”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Caleb Roenigk; credit c: modification of work by Dr. Carmen Russoniello)

One reason exercise may be beneficial is because it might buffer some of the deleterious physiological mechanisms of stress. One study found rats that exercised for six weeks showed a decrease in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responsiveness to mild stressors (Campeau et al., 2010). In high-stress humans, exercise has been shown to prevent telomere shortening, which may explain the common observation of a youthful appearance among those who exercise regularly (Puterman et al., 2010). Further, exercise in later adulthood appears to minimize the detrimental effects of stress on the hippocampus and memory (Head, Singh, & Bugg, 2012). Among cancer survivors, exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety (Speck, Courneya, Masse, Duval, & Schmitz, 2010) and depressive symptoms (Craft, VanIterson, Helenowski, Rademaker, & Courneya, 2012). Clearly, exercise is a highly effective tool for regulating stress.

In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, developed a stress reduction method called the relaxation response technique (Greenberg, 2006). The relaxation response technique combines relaxation with transcendental meditation, and consists of four components (Stein, 2001): sitting upright on a comfortable chair with feet on the ground and body in a relaxed position, a quiet environment with eyes closed, repeating a word or a phrase—a mantra—to oneself, such as “alert mind, calm body,” passively allowing the mind to focus on pleasant thoughts, such as nature or the warmth of your blood nourishing your body.

The relaxation response approach is conceptualized as a general approach to stress reduction that reduces sympathetic arousal, and it has been used effectively to treat people with high blood pressure (Benson & Proctor, 1994).

Another technique to combat stress, biofeedback, was developed by Gary Schwartz at Harvard University in the early 1970s. Biofeedback is a technique that uses electronic equipment to accurately measure a person’s neuromuscular and autonomic activity—feedback is provided in the form of visual or auditory signals. The main assumption of this approach is that providing somebody biofeedback will enable the individual to develop strategies that help gain some level of voluntary control over what are normally involuntary bodily processes (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1995). A number of different bodily measures have been used in biofeedback research, including facial muscle movement, brain activity, and skin temperature, and it has been applied successfully with individuals experiencing tension headaches, high blood pressure, asthma, and phobias (Stein, 2001).

Glossary

biofeedback: stress-reduction technique using electronic equipment to measure a person’s involuntary (neuromuscular and autonomic) activity and provide feedback to help the person gain a level of voluntary control over these processes
relaxation response technique: stress reduction technique combining elements of relaxation and meditation
social support: soothing and often beneficial support of others; can take different forms, such as advice, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, emotional comfort, and tangible assistance