Social support involves having a network of friends, family and peers that you can turn to in times of need. Psychologists and other mental health professionals often talk about the importance of having a strong social support network.
Why is having social support particularly relevant during social isolation? In the time of COVID-19 pandemic, you may have felt more irritated, lonely, or more easily affected by stressful situations. These experiences may be a trigger to reach out and connect with others. While some people have taken the lockdown time as a chance to reengage with hobbies, or home or garden projects, others may be busier than ever due to the changes induced by the lockdown. Regardless of whether you are enjoying some more free time, or adding another ball or two to your day-to-day juggle, feelings of loneliness, anxiety and isolation can arise from social-distancing requirements. This is because of the distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like.
Poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness has been shown to increase the risk of depression, alcohol consumption, cardiovascular disease and other physical ailments. Research has also demonstrated the link between social relationships and many different aspects of health and wellness. For example, 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. A body of literature also suggests that social support seems to moderate genetic and environmental vulnerabilities for mental illness. This possibly may be by effects through other psychosocial factors, such as fostering effective coping strategies, and/or through effects on multiple neurobiological factors. Overall, it appears that positive social support of high quality can enhance resilience to stress.
The following benefits have been shown to be associated with having a strong network of social support:
- Improving the ability to cope with stressful situations
- Alleviating the effects of emotional distress
- Promoting lifelong good mental health
- Enhancing self-esteem
- Lowering cardiovascular risks, such as lowering of blood pressure
- Promoting healthy lifestyle behaviours
- Encouraging adherence to a treatment plan
How to cultivate your social support network? It is important to recognise that everyone is different in how they will respond to social restrictions. The experience of loneliness and ways of coping with it are very individual. It may be unhelpful to compare yourself to others. You don’t need to formalise your support network. A coffee break with a friend at work, a quick chat with a neighbour, a phone call to your sibling, a visit to a house of worship or volunteer work are all ways to develop and foster lasting relationships with others.
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. 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. 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. By having this form of support, people may feel less anxious and stressed out about the problems they are trying to solve thanks to the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or loved one.
Ideas for building your social network:
- Build the foundation: A successful relationship is a two-way street that requires your active participation. Here are some suggestions for nurturing your relationships:
- Stay in touch. Answering phone calls, returning emails and reciprocating invitations let people know you care.
- Be a good listener. Listen when your friends are speaking. Find out what’s important to them.
- Appreciate your friends and family. Take time to say thank you and express how important they are to you.
- Give back. Be available for family and friends when they need support. In addition to relying on others, you also serve as a form of support for many people in your life.
- Make small efforts over time to interact with others, such as greeting people you see while out exercising or at the supermarket. As they say, “a smile goes a long way, but you must first start it on its journey” – Helen Keller.
- Maintaining and growing that network
- Exercise with a friend or neighbour. Hit two birds with one stone – you can stay connected while keeping your body physically healthy.
- Be open to the possibility of social interaction and be flexible about how you might be able to have it.
- Focus on your current social network rather than trying to make new friends, as that can be daunting for some people. Remember that a goal of building your social support network is to reduce your stress level, not add to it. Watch for situations that seem to drain your energy.
- Look for online groups related to a hobby you may have re-engaged with.
- If you have pets, they may provide extra companionship at this time.
- Limit social media usage. While social media can be great for maintaining contact with others, be mindful of not overusing it, as you may be drawn into discussions of all the challenges and be exposed to lots of negative news.
- Don’t be afraid to share your feelings and talk about how you are feeling and how you are managing changes to their level of social contact. This serves as an opportunity to self-reflect on your current emotional needs and may also provide a sense of comfort to those who may be feeling the same.
Taking the time to build a social support network is a wise investment not only in your mental well-being but also in your physical health and longevity. Start making more friends or improving the relationships you already have. Whether you’re the one getting the support or the one doling out the encouragement, you’ll reap rewards. If you’re struggling with relationships, managing feelings of loneliness or if you are experiencing other challenges, you might reach out to a therapist. A mental health professional 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.
How can BeUpstanding help?
A key part of the BeUpstanding program is building a supportive culture for healthy change. By hosting regular healthy events, like lunchtime walks, and facilitating more incidental movement around the workplace, there creates more opportunity to build a social support network within your work team. If you haven’t signed up to BeUpstanding yet, go here to check it out.