Social Support and Stress- Emotional vs. Instrumental Support
Social support is an important tool for coping with stress. There are two main and contradicting hypotheses about the role of social support in stressful situations- the buffering hypothesis and the main effects hypothesis. In this lesson, we'll learn more about social support and its effects on stress.
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What Is Social Support?
Imagine that you’ve just found out some very stressful news. What do you do? Do you run for that tub of ice cream in your freezer? Do you head for the gym and the punching bag? Do you call a friend to come over and talk it out with you?
Everyone faces stress at some point in their lives. There are many negative health effects of too much stress, including a weakened immune system and heart disease. As a result, finding a way to cope with stress is an important topic to many people. Psychologists have done extensive research on coping with stress, and what they’ve found is that one of the best ways to cope is through seeking and receiving social support. In other words, of those options above, your best bet is to call a friend to come over.
Social support is defined as the belief that others understand your needs and will try to help you. You can find social support in a number of different places: through friends and family, through clubs or even through support groups. There are two main types of social support.
Emotional support involves acting as a confidant for someone. For example, you might offer emotional support to someone by listening and offering sympathy after they’ve had bad news. Instrumental support is offering help or assistance in a tangible and/or physical way, such as providing money to someone who’s lost their job or helping someone who’s bedridden by preparing dinner. Both emotional and instrumental support are important.
While there’s a lot of research on the effects of social support on stress, there is some disagreement on whether people need social support all the time or just during times of stress. Let’s look closer at some of the benefits of social support and at two major theories around social support: the buffering hypothesis and the main effects hypothesis.
Benefits of Social Support
Research has shown that social support can make a huge difference in people’s lives during stressful times. One study showed that cancer patients with a strong support group not only felt less stressed and upset during treatment, but actually lived an average of 18 months longer!
There are two ways that social support can help people. First, it helps people interpret events in a more positive light. Anyone who has a friend who can make them laugh at the toughest of times understands how helpful this can be! The other way that social support can help people is through helping them identify ways to cope. If you’re going through a tough time and know someone who has already gone through the same process, they can help you through it. In turn, you’ll be able to help others through that same thing in the future.
Obviously, social support can help tremendously during stressful times. But, do people always need social support or only during times of stress? There is some disagreement on that, and research is still ongoing. On one hand, the buffering hypothesis says that social support is mostly beneficial during stressful times. The idea behind it is the fact that social support buffers, or protects, people from the negative effects of stress. If you’re not under a lot of stress, you don’t need the buffer of social support.
For example, the buffering hypothesis says that if Sarah just lost her job, she needs her friends and family to support her only as long as she is out of the job. Once she finds a new job, she no longer needs the support from her loved ones. Notice, though, that this hypothesis does not say that you don’t need loved ones in non-stressful times - just that you don’t need the social support they provide. In other words, you might need them for other things. In fact, not having loved ones around can be stressful itself!
The psychologists who believe in the buffering hypothesis point to the fact that poor health and stress are correlated most strongly in people who have low social support. For the people who have high social support, the effects of stress aren’t the same. From this, we can assume that the social support protects people from stress.
Main Effects Hypothesis
On the other hand, some psychologists point to research that says people with high social support are in good health overall. The idea that social support helps all the time, not just in stressful times, is called the main effects hypothesis or the direct effects hypothesis .
Research on the buffering and main effects hypotheses has shown that, regardless of which hypothesis is correct, perceived social support has a more positive impact than actual social support. In other words, if you believe that you have a lot of social support, even if you don’t, you’ll end up better off than if you actually receive a lot of social support but don’t believe that you do. Of course, hopefully you’ll perceive and actually receive a high level of social support! Going back to our example above, according to the main effects hypothesis, Sarah needs social support both when she has a job and when she doesn’t.
Social support occurs when you believe that others are perceptive and receptive to your needs. There are many health benefits to social support, including reduced stress and improved overall health. Psychologists debate whether the effects of social support happen mostly during stressful times, which is called the buffering hypothesis , or whether they happen all the time, also known as the main effects hypothesis .
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