We interact with so many different people daily through work, networking groups, family, friends and neighbours, but we can underestimate the power these relationships can have for helping us out in times of stress and dealing with life’s challenges. As the University at Buffalo describes, our social support system refers to a network of people we can turn to for emotional and practical support.
Research has shown that healthy and supportive social networks can enhance resilience to stress and are associated with better health, both physically and mentally. They are also important for reducing the risk of loneliness, which is associated with many health problems.
Benefits of a social support network
Interestingly, the American Psychological Association (APA) states that having strong social support can help increase your ability to cope with problems on your own by improving your self-esteem and sense of autonomy. They can, for example, guide you to focus on how to go about addressing your concerns.
Having a wide network of people can be valuable as you may find some people who are better to talk to about certain issues and other people for different topics. As the APA advises, this means looking to different relationships for different kinds of support. This is also because different types of stress require different types of support.
Emotionally, this means you have someone to talk to, which can help relieve the emotional stress you may have. Talking with others has a variety of benefits as others may be able to:
- Spot when you are stressed even before you do, as someone outside of your experience.
- Listen to your concerns, feelings, and hopes, validate your feelings, and make you feel seen and understood.
- Help problem-solve, for example, by running through different scenarios with you.
- Provide words of encouragement and support.
- Share their own experiences, whether they are the same or similar to yours, so you may be able to learn from them or help to see your situation through a different lens.
Physical or practical support
Physical or practical support can come, for example, in the form of assistance when you are injured and may need someone to help drive you somewhere or bring you some supplies while you are immobile. People you know could provide information, advice, guidance, or referrals about where to seek external help for a problem you may be experiencing, such as a home repair. Having this assistance can help guard against stress in your life which may arise if you can’t access certain services or supplies. It can also mean sharing resources such as food, equipment, or information, and it can also include sharing your time with someone.
How to strengthen your support network?
As the University at Buffalo explains, a support network needs to exist for you to be able to draw upon when you need it. Nurturing your current relationships, although this takes some effort, will help you to build a support network that you can turn to. Positive and successful relationships require reciprocity. Try to be the friend you would like to have. Here are some tips for sustaining your current social networks to keep them strong and positive.
- Keep in touch as often as you can manage it: According to APA, if you are there for others, they’ll be more likely to be there for you.
- Show your appreciation: This can be a simple note that tells your friends or family how much they mean to you and why you are grateful for them.
- Be there for your friends as much as you can: Your friends will see and appreciate you as a true friend, even just by being there as a shoulder to cry on, as they say. Even just listening while they talk about their feelings and not pronouncing judgment, can make your friend feel less alone. The Mental Health Foundation UK recommends listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.
- Accept help from others: Although it can be difficult for fear of burdening others, according to the University at Buffalo, accepting help lets others know that they can be of value to you, reinforcing their side of the friendship.
- Celebrate and support successes. Your friends will appreciate that you are a genuine friend by being excited and supporting their successes.
- Communicate openly and honestly: Conflicts can occur even with the most tight-knit of friendships. According to the University at Buffalo, it’s important to be open and honestly voice your feelings if they have been hurt rather than keeping them inside. The university suggests starting by assuming it is a misunderstanding or unintentional but asking about it. The friend will likely appreciate the opportunity to address and remedy the situation. Accept an apology graciously if offered, just as you would like others to accept yours.
- Respect and communicate boundaries: Everyone has their limits for how much social interaction they need and want. Know your own, let others know, and respect that of others. This can help take the pressure off either of you in the relationship.
- Know when a relationship isn’t supportive: A good indicator of the quality of the support is how it affects your stress levels. If you are feeling more stressed because they are acting in ways that are not supportive of you, they might not be someone you can count on.
How to build your social support network
Apart from caring for your current relationships, you could expand your network by:
Joining a club, sport, or hobby group:
It can be less intimidating to form friendships over shared interests. However, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t make friends immediately, as it can take time, and in the meantime, you can try to enjoy the journey and experience of getting to know others.
Identify a cause that is close to your heart that you can dedicate a small amount of time to volunteer for, so you can be in an environment and meet with others who share the same values.
Get to know your neighbours and co-workers:
Try to get to know your neighbours better, perhaps at least with a friendly hello when you see them.
Join professional organizations:
This can be a great step for your career through networking with others in your field who may face similar challenges and work in similar roles and duties. You may relate to how your occupations can affect life outside of work.
Local community events:
There may be classes or performances you can attend, and being local means that there may be a higher chance of you meeting each other again to make it easier to build the relationship.
Formal counselling services:
If you are finding it hard to maintain or build a support network, you may consider seeking assistance from a psychologist or counsellor who can offer strategies around this, as well as help with social skills and managing stress.
The Mental Health Foundation UK