What if I told you that I have a recipe for the secret sauce? And if you use this sauce, you will live longer, have less stress in your life, have better cardiovascular health, and have increased immunity. Do I have your attention yet?
What if I also said that using this sauce will decrease your risk of mental health and substance use conditions, and you will have decreased risk of Alzheimer’s? You will even think faster! In fact, research demonstrates that using this secret sauce improves overall psychological and physical well-being.
So, what is this amazing sauce, you ask? And if it is so great, why isn’t everybody using it?
The secret ingredient to achieve all of the above mental and physical health outcomes is simply… social support.
Hold on, you might be thinking. I have family and friends. Am I missing something? What makes social support so special? There’s no way it could be that simple… right?
Think again. This critical aspect of our lives is often pushed to the back burner, crowded out by the many other tasks and responsibilities that demand our attention. Unfortunately, neglecting our social connections can make every burden in our lives weigh down on us that much more. Nurturing these connections, on the other hand, has even greater benefits than those you’re already aware of.
Social support is often identified as a key component of solid relationships and strong mental health, but what exactly is social support?
Essentially, social support means having a network of family, faith and friends that you can turn to in times of need. This need for social support is universal! Roberta Greene, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin did a research study on the survivors of some of the most traumatic periods in history (including the Holocaust and Jim Crow Laws of the American South) and found that what mattered most to increasing a person’s resilience was “how they interacted with family, their community, the spiritual community, and society at large.” Life has certainly changed over the past few decades!
Have you ever wondered why some people are able to weather the storm while others struggle to cope with the changes? It comes down to something called resilience. According to Dr. Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota, “resilience is the capacity of a person, community, family or economy to adapt successfully to challenge.” Further research on resilience out of Columbia University identifies that “resilience rests fundamentally on relationships.” The research of Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University, identified that “the most resilient children tended to have strong relationships with caregivers they trusted who made them feel listened to and loved.”
So, as we are expected to navigate today’s challenges, it is important to nurture this aspect in our lives. Whether you are facing a personal crisis and need immediate assistance, or you just want to spend time with people who care about you, relationships play a critical role in how you function in your day-to-day life. It is social support that helps people deal with stress and gives them the strength to move forward, and even thrive!
Social support refers to the psychological and material resources provided by a social network to help individuals cope with stress. Social support also includes social relationships and a sense of belonging to different social groups, including being part of a family, partnership, religious community, or social activity. The sense of belonging that is offered through The Daily Drip is an example of social support.
There are different kinds of social support, and some examples include:
There are many ways to obtain social support. The research shows that participation in social groups has a normative influence on behaviors, including whether people eat a healthy diet, exercise, smoke, drink, or use illegal substances. Think about a time in your life when you were trying to give up a bad habit; did social support impact your outcome? If your social connections do not support you, it can make success much more difficult. If your friends and family offer support and encouragement, you may find that achieving your goals seems much more possible.
Social support also helps people to cope with stress. Stress has been shown to have serious health consequences ranging from reduced immunity to increased risk of heart disease. Being surrounded by people who are caring and supportive helps people to see themselves as better capable of dealing with the stresses that life brings. Further, research has also shown that having strong social support in times of crisis can help reduce the consequences of trauma.
I was recently reading an article by Maria Shriver where she was speaking about the news coverage of the war in the Ukraine. She was commenting on how her heart was breaking as she watched families walking hand in hand with all of their worldly belongings in a backpack. She said she was reflecting on “whose hand would hold hers” and “who would walk with her”. She questioned if someone would welcome her or help her as she walked. She also mused about what would be in her own backpack. She posed the following questions:
Do you have someone in your life who would walk with you?
Do you think you would be taken in by total strangers, or would you take in total strangers the way many in Poland have done?
She challenged her readers to think about how they are meeting this moment.
These are all questions of social support. Who would walk beside you? In a time of need, are there people that would lift you up? What can you do to make a difference in this world for others?
An amazing aspect of social support is that it is incredibly equalizing. You don’t have to be wealthy to have support. Support does not pay attention to race, ethnicity, or gender (though there are some differences between the support that women have when compared to the support that men garner). Support can be low cost/no cost and is accessible to most. Like most important aspects in our lives, when we prioritize a need, we can make great strides.
COVID has really created a challenge for many in the space of social support. Have you noticed how tired we are? Collectively, we are tired! The past few years have impacted the mental wellbeing of most everyone. Even those among us who have great self-care practices report running on empty. For many, the workplace environment was a source of social support and when people began working from home, access to that support was changed. For some they had to travel to see their families and that became a barrier. When you think of our youth, schools were shut down for a spell, and then some children went back in person while others continued virtually. Even wearing a mask is isolating and has an impact on connection- it is difficult to see if someone is smiling. Many are still struggling with how to re-emerge from the pandemic, even as new variants continue to spread. When we are armed with the knowledge of the benefits of social support, it makes it easier to prioritize it in our lives. Remember, the grass is always greener where you water it.
How do you know when you need to enhance your social support systems and what can you do about it? When it comes to support, if you find yourself feeling lonely, isolated, or lacking in support systems, it can be important to assess your relationships.
The best way to build support is to begin with the relationships that you already have. Identify what is working in that relationship (and what is not) and assess how you can expand what is working well or identify what you need differently. One of the biggest barriers to having a meaningful support system is our ability to ask for help. It’s really hard to be vulnerable, and often our fear gets in the way. According to Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is anything but weak. In fact, it takes true strength and courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable”. In her Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, she inspires people to practice vulnerability because “vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to feeling worthy and true belonging”. This speaks to the need for not only the quantity of your support, but also the quality of your support.
Additionally, finding happiness in activities that brings you joy provides an amazing opportunity for connection and support. When you are passionate about something, and you enjoy that activity, it increases endorphins in your body, which help give you energy. Further, when doing an activity that you truly enjoy, you are likely to meet others that also enjoy the same activity. Therein lies the opportunity for expanding your support system!
For some people, making connections is difficult, like many other beneficial aspects of our lives. Not everyone loves working out, but we understand the health benefits, so we do it. For many of us, understanding the impact on our mental and physical health can be the start of placing a greater importance and emphasis on the quality of social support in our lives.
Vivian Greene once said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” The science around the benefits of social support and social connection shows this is the secret sauce to dancing in the rain. If you want to live longer, be happier and healthier, and even think faster, having meaningful connections with the people in your life is the secret sauce.