Community Resources

Developing Your Support System

Image: Self-Care arenas design.

“A friend is a present you give yourself.”
~ Message in a fortune cookie

What is a Social Support System?

Most of us would agree that it is invaluable to have people in our lives who genuinely care about us and who are there through the good times and the bad. These are the folks who make up our social support system. When we speak of a social support system we mean a network of people – friends, family, and peers – that we can turn to for emotional and practical support. At school, fellow students and supportive staff and faculty may provide assistance as well, and as we move into our professional careers, our colleagues may also be sources of support (which is fortunate given how much time we spend with them!). A social support network is different from a support group in which people facing common issues share their concerns on a regular basis (and which may be peer or professionally led or free-form), though both can be very important in times of stress. Because we think student peer support can be especially helpful during graduate school, we hope you will consider joining (or starting) a student support group in the School of Social Work. (We have provided information on how to do this in Tips on Starting a Student Support or Discussion Group and the presentation Why Create a Support Group?).

Benefits of a Social Support System

Decades of research have shown that there are tremendous benefits in having a network of supportive relationships. Indeed it is well established that those with robust social support networks have better health, longer lives, and report higher well-being. Friends and loved ones can make you more resilient in times of stress, setback, or loss and they can also make the good times immeasurably better. In addition to buffering stress, some friends can even help you identify when you are stressed or distressed — in some cases they may notice it before you do. (See Identifying Your Breathe Supports for more information.)

Beyond sharing the good times, there are many practical benefits to having supportive relationships, such as knowing people who can provide you with information, advice, guidance, and also tangible support, such as assistance in times of uncertainty. This feature of social support can be comforting and enhance your feelings of security.

Supportive relationships can also bolster you emotionally when you’re feeling down or overwhelmed. Friends and loved ones will listen to your fears, hopes, and dreams, and make you feel seen and understood. They can help you think through alternatives and solve problems, and they can distract from your worries when that is what’s really needed. In doing all this they provide encouragement and lower your stress and feelings of loneliness.

Sustaining Your Current Relationships

Successful relationships require give-and-take. A good rule of thumb is to treat your friends as you want to be treated. In other words, be the friend you want to have. Many factors contribute to healthy, happy relationships. Here are some tips.

Show your appreciation. Cherish your relationships. Tell your friends and family how important they are to you and thank them for all they give you.

Stay in touch. Return phone calls, texts, and emails in a timely manner (when possible) and reciprocate invitations. Doing these things is not only polite but it lets people know they are important to you.

Be available when you’re needed. True friends come through when times are tough. Be a good listener and allow your friend to confide freely and without being judged. Let them know you are in their corner. Ask what you can do to help.

Accept their help. Some people find it hard to accept support, preferring to be the one always offering it instead. Some may fear becoming dependent or want to maintain their self-image as the “strong” and “together” one. But friends and family often want to feel they have done something for you. Let them! Accepting help can help you. It also keeps the relationship balanced (as it should be) and lets your friends and loved ones know that they have something to offer that you value.

Support successes. When you genuinely care about someone you will be excited when they succeed. If you find yourself feeling a little jealous too, you can acknowledge that to yourself, but don’t let it poison your friendship.

Keep the lines of communication open. Open, honest communication is the lifeblood of healthy, happy relationships. If a friend does or says something that hurts your feelings, try to deal with it directly. Start by assuming that it is a misunderstanding or that the misstep was unintentional, but ask them about it. (Don’t stuff bruised feelings.) Your friend will likely appreciate the opportunity to remedy the situation. Whatever the case, accept apologies graciously (as you would hope others would accept yours).

Respect needs and limits. Each person has their own setting for how much social interaction they need and want. Know your own and respect that of others, even it differs from yours. Sometimes finding this balance can be a hard with a new friend and may require adjustments. However, if a friend starts to pull away or initiate less communication, it may be that you have overstepped. Don’t assume though. Ask them, address the issue, and apologize (if appropriate). Remember, friendships are two-way streets.

Know when a relationship isn’t working for you. If you find that you are drained whenever you see a particular friend, or that he or she is inconsiderate of your time or feelings, or is unreliable, highly critical of you, or generally negative, they may not be the friend for you. Similarly, if they engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse, particularly if you have had trouble with such issues, they also may not be a good choice for your social support network. Remember, those in your support system should help you reduce stress, not increase it. They should support your goals and efforts to achieve them, not belittle or undermine them.

Some Ideas for Building Your Social Support System

Volunteer. Identify a cause that is important to you and get involved. Give some of your time to help a community organization, a local church, synagogue or mosque, or the local chapter of a national organization. Volunteering can give you the gratification of taking action to further your values and will bring you into contact with others who share your interests and ideals.

Take up a sport or join a gym. Regular exercise is good for your physical and psychological health and it may also provide the opportunity to build new friendships.

Start a book club and invite some people to join who you don’t already know well. Discussing interesting ideas and sharing thoughts and observations is a wonderful way to make new friends.

Meet your neighbors. Make an effort to get to know some of the acquaintances you see on a regular basis. Chances are some of them are gems.

Join professional organizations. Taking this step is good not only for your future career but it will also extend your social network to encompass others in your field. Sometimes friends in the same profession can understand the stresses you face better than anyone.

Use online resources. Social networking sites can help you stay connected with friends and family. Sending emails and electronic greetings for holidays and birthdays, posting pictures, and forwarding interesting articles are all ways to stay in touch that can sustain relationships over time and distance, even when in-person time is limited.

There are also many sites that can provide specialized support if you are going through stressful times or changing circumstances, such as becoming a new parent, facing a life-threatening illness in a loved one, coping with loss, or some other challenge. Be careful, though, to stick with reputable sites and use common sense about making arrangements to meet people in person that you have only known online.

Why It Is Important to Cultivate Your Social Support System Now

We turn to our social supports in times of need, and so they have to be in place before we need them. Now is the time to nurture the relationships you already have and to start making more friends. Don’t wait! You will enjoy the benefits now and in the future.

References

Cobb, S. (1976). Social support as a moderator of stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 35, 375-389.

Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310-357.

Duck, S., Starch, D., Starch, A., & Silver, R. C. (Eds.)(1990). Personal relationships and social support. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Mayo Clinic (2010). Social support: Tap this tool to combat stress. Retrieved July 29, 2010 from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/social-support/SR00033.

Uchino, B. N. (2004). Social support and physical health: Understanding the consequences of relationships. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Vaux, A. (1988). Social support: Theory, research, and intervention. New York: Praeger.

(Prepared by Lisa D. Butler, Ph.D.)