Social Support for Stress Relief
Feeling stressed, anxious, or burned out? Close relationships and social connections can be a natural way to manage daily or chronic stress and maintain your mental health and well-being.
The importance of social support
When your car breaks down, you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or you're going through a rough time at work, supportive people in your life can rush in to help. But a reliable social support network isn't just useful in emergency situations. Strong relationships with friends and family members can also bolster your mood, improve your outlook, and preserve your mental well-being.
Research shows that people with high levels of social support seem to be more resilient in the face of stressful situations. They also have a lower perception of stress in general and have less of a physiological response to life’s stressors. Maybe that blown transmission doesn't seem so devastating when your friend is with you in the car. Or perhaps a normally stressful errand feels more like an adventure when your sibling or partner tags along.
Social support can also provide you with comfort even when the stress feels completely unbearable. Perhaps you're feeling physically exhausted or emotionally numb from long hours at a high-stress job, caring for an ailing loved one, or coming to terms with a traumatic event. Having the love and support of people around you can help mediate even the negative health effects of burnout or ease the psychological distress that comes with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So, whether you're dealing with chronic stress or day-to-day frustrations, reaching out to others can be a go-to strategy for managing stress.
Other benefits of social support
Although stress relief is one major benefit, social support is also essential to maintaining your overall mental health. Connecting with others can:
- Increase happiness. If you want a quick mood boost, schedule time with a friend. Research shows that good social relations improve overall happiness. On the other hand, loneliness and low social support is linked to depression and anxiety.
- Improve physical health. Social isolation is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and inflammation. Loneliness can also have a negative effect on your immune system.
- Improve cognitive functioning. Social isolation and loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline. Maintaining an active social life is especially important for people who are at risk of dementia or in the early stages of the disease.
- Ease the pain and loneliness of grief. The death of a loved one or loss of a relationship can make you feel alone in your grief. Friends and family members can offer emotional support in troubling times.
- Make you feel understood. A friend who listens and is able to empathize can help you feel less lonely. This helps reduce feelings of isolation and gives a boost to your self-esteem.
- Offer new perspectives and aid in problem-solving. If you're grappling with a difficult decision or stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, a friend's advice or words of encouragement can offer guidance. In some cases, talking with someone close can even help you identify the root causes of your emotional distress.
- Reinforce healthy habits. The people around you might influence you to make decisions that further enhance your mental and physical health, such as exercising regularly or quitting smoking.
- Add meaning to your life. Close relationships can help give you a stronger sense of meaning and purpose in life. In turn, you might be less likely to engage in risky behavior and more likely to take care of yourself.
- Increase your lifespan. Research even shows an association between supportive social relationships and a longer life. This could be due to the fact that relationships ease stress that in the long-term can harm the body and take years off your life.
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How social support reduces stress
Whenever you perceive a threat—anything from physical danger to social humiliation to sudden financial trouble—your sympathetic nervous system springs into action, releasing stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. You'll notice your blood pressure increases, your muscles tense, and your rate of breathing quickens. These effects aren't always comfortable, but they're intended to help you fight or flee from the perceived danger.
While this “fight or flight” response has a biological purpose, chronic stress can keep triggering it, which over time can cause serious health problems. It can impair your immune system, increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, and exacerbate existing problems like depression and memory difficulties.
Social interaction can act as a counter to the “fight or flight” response. Interacting with other people triggers your body to release hormones that create a sense of calm and other positive feelings. It's your body's way of encouraging you to drop your guard and relax. As this happens, your nervous system returns to a more normal and balanced state.
Imagine that an interaction with a workplace bully leaves you feeling tense and defensive. Some kind words or validation from a friendly coworker can help you relax and emotionally recover from the incident. If you're grieving the sudden loss of a loved one or coping with a distressing diagnosis, for example, your friends can't make the problem go away. However, they can make you feel heard, loved, and ease the stress of the challenges you’re facing.
Increasing the stress-relieving benefits
While a text or phone call from a friend can offer some comfort when you’re dealing with stress, face-to-face interactions are far more beneficial. This is likely because factors such as vocal tone, eye contact, and physical touch can all play a role in calming our nervous systems. To better manage stress, try to prioritize in-person connections over calls, texts, or messaging.
In addition, the closer you are with the person you're interacting with, the more your body releases calming hormones. Spending an afternoon with your best friend, for example, will improve your mood more than a brief interaction with a stranger. With that in mind, it's important to surround yourself with the right people—those who care about you—and then put in effort to maintain those relationships. By doing so, you'll tap into a reliable source of emotional support and stress relief.
Making the most of your social network
If you want to reap the mental health benefits of close social ties, you'll need to put in effort to build and maintain relationships. This applies even when you're not personally feeling stressed out. A friendship is a two-way street. Be there for your friends when they need support and they'll be there for you. Here are some tips to ensure your friendships are mutually beneficial and uplifting.
Schedule time with friends or reach out, even when you're feeling good. This seems like a simple step, but it's easy to neglect relationships when your days are packed with work and errands. Set aside time in the day to respond to missed phone calls or text messages. Even during busy weeks, try to schedule in face-to-face time with your favorite people. Contact with a close friend can offer some emotional comfort in an otherwise hectic day.
Don't exert too much pressure. Be flexible and understanding of others’ needs. Don't try to guilt-trip friends if they have to cancel plans or overwhelm loved ones with too many texts or calls. If you need to have a long conversation or vent your frustrations, ask if your friend has the emotional bandwidth and the time to listen.
Try to put in equal effort. In healthy relationships, one person isn't putting in all of the effort. If a friend is always driving out of town to visit you, offer to visit them instead. When you're the only one doing all of the work, resentment and stress levels can build.
Practice forgiveness. No one's perfect. Even the people who care about you most will hurt your feelings or misunderstand you on occasion. Be willing to forgive and remember that we all make mistakes.
Don't fear vulnerability. If you fear looking weak or emotional, you'll have a hard time finding stress relief in your social connections. Opening up about your fears, insecurities, and worries will not only help you feel better, it will help you develop deeper bonds with others as well.
Show appreciation. A simple message or card can express your appreciation to a friend for being there for you. You don't have to wait until the holidays or their birthdays.
Keep your ego in check. Don't make every situation or conversation about you. Take a genuine interest in the other person's life and resist the urge to compete and compare your lives. Be happy for a friend when you see them succeed.
Be a good listener. It’s the act of social connection that eases stress and enriches your life. You don't have to solve all of your friends' problems any more than they need to solve yours. Make active listening a core part of your relationships. Put away your cell phone so you can be present, set aside judgments, and really listen to what the other person is trying to communicate.
For more tips, see Effective Communication.
Identifying unhealthy friendships
Not all relationships will help to alleviate stress. Some friends and family members can actually increase your stress levels and worsen your mood. You might already know someone who only uses your time together to complain but never listens. Or maybe you know coworkers who are argumentative and gossipy, which makes your job more difficult.
Some signs of toxic friendships include:
- The other person tries to tear you down. They might veil their insults as “jokes” or claim you're too sensitive if they hurt your feelings.
- They frequently gossip or talk negatively about others. This stream of negativity can bring down your mood or make you wonder if they're gossiping about you as well.
- They only focus on themselves. They may come to you whenever they need to vent, but they never seem to have time to listen to your problems.
- They don't accept you as you are. Maybe they try to pressure you into doing things you've said you don't enjoy or change how you dress or behave.
- You don't feel comfortable around them. You might feel as though you're walking on eggshells when interacting with them. Perhaps they seem overly judgmental, so you withhold opinions or emotions.
If you have friends like these in your life, you don't necessarily have to sever ties completely. However, it might be best to spend less time with them so you can focus on friendships that leave you feeling more positive, hopeful, and relaxed.
How to strengthen your social connections
While many of us have lots of “friends” on social media or acquaintances at work, school, or in the neighborhood, we don’t always have many close, supportive relationships. One way to strengthen your social support network is by deepening these existing ties with acquaintances.
Perhaps you make daily small talk with someone at a coffee shop or you exchange jokes with someone in the office. Outside of those surface-level interactions, they don't know much about you and you don't know much about them. But start to think of them as potential friends.
Invite a casual acquaintance to an outing. Keep things low pressure. Go out for coffee, a walk, or to see a movie. It doesn't necessarily have to be a one-on-one interaction, but hanging out together gives you both an opportunity to get to know each other better.
Build on common interests. If you’re looking to share a hobby or find a workout buddy, for example, consider acquaintances that have similar goals or interests. Plan a movie or game night and invite acquaintances who share your tastes.
Offer your time. If a colleague is moving across town, offer to help them. You can also suggest carpooling to work with coworkers or to other events with acquaintances.
Reach out to an old friend. You can look for old high school or college acquaintances on social media. Schedule a meetup if they have time and chat about how life has changed for both of you. Just don't expect the individual to be exactly the same person you used to know. We all change over time.
Remember that different people have different opinions. Good friends don’t have to agree on everything. Acknowledging your differences can be a great way to gain a new perspective.
Be mindful of your expectations. Some people become fast friends. Others need more time to open up. Don't try to force a friendship to follow some sort of timeline; that's a recipe for unnecessary stress. Instead, allow your bond to evolve naturally.
Meeting new people
If you're new to an area or just generally feel alone, you might want to build up a new social support network. Here are some ways to make new friends or meet new acquaintances.
Join a local club. If you love the great outdoors, consider joining a local hiking group. Sites like Meetup.com make it easy to find and join local groups, including book clubs and gaming groups.
Take a class. If you'd like to learn how to improve your cooking or crafting skills, take a class at a community college. By opening yourself up to new experiences, you can walk away with more skills and new friends with similar interests.
Attend events. Look for nearby concerts, book readings, gallery openings, and theater performances. Or you could visit a bar during a big sports event to meet other people who share enthusiasm for the local team.
Volunteer. Volunteering can increase happiness and improve your overall mental health. It also happens to be a good way to meet new people with values that match your own. Consider volunteering your time at local establishments, such as community centers, or during events like 5Ks or food drives.
Overcoming common obstacles
It isn’t always easy to build the social connections that can help you to manage stress and improve your mental health. While some people just seem to be social butterflies by nature, others have to put in a little more effort. Social anxiety, depression, or an introverted disposition, for example, can make it harder to expand or maintain your social network.
Even if you find social interaction highly stressful, though, there are strategies to help you cope.
Managing social anxiety
If you have an intense fear of social situations, you may feel like people are always judging you or worry that you'll make an embarrassing mistake. Those fears can lead to physical symptoms such as shortness of breath and nausea. You might even have developed a habit of staying quiet or avoiding interactions with others.
Cast your focus outward. It's easy to get distracted by the voice in your head that's criticizing your every move. A negative inner monologue can even leave you feeling too paralyzed to speak. Try to shift your focus to the other person. Be curious. What are they trying to verbally communicate? What's their body language like? Are they fidgeting? Why? This change in focus can help reduce self-consciousness and allow you to be more present.
Challenge negative assumptions. Do you think everyone in the room noticed that you misspoke? Maybe you're imagining them all judging you. But thoughts like this rarely reflect reality. Try challenging them with more realistic assumptions. It's likely that no one noticed or they were too distracted by their own inner monologues. Even if they did notice, they're probably not judging you for a relatable mistake.
Practice. Socializing is just like any other skill. No one's perfect, but you can get better with practice. Did you have a few awkward moments when talking to a new friend? Be patient with yourself. By taking small steps and acknowledging positive interactions, you can become more confident.
Socializing while coping with depression
Depression can sap your energy and lead you to withdraw from interacting with others. However, isolation just increases stress and worsens your mood, creating a vicious downward cycle that can be hard to break.
Know that you're not a burden. It's not uncommon for people with depression to avoid reaching out to loved ones. You might feel like you're bothering them or that they have other people they'd rather spend time with. Recognize this as a form of cognitive distortion. You're likely making a false assumption and anticipating a negative reaction that won’t occur. Challenge your assumptions and take the proactive step of reaching out.
Create small social goals. These goals might be as simple as calling a family member or going for a quick coffee with a friend. The initial step of making contact can help ease you into longer social situations. Even if you decide that you don't want to follow through on a longer interaction, you've at least let others know that you're thinking about them.
Walk in nature with a friend. Spending time in nature can reduce rumination and physical activity can help manage the symptoms of depression. Combine exercise, nature, and socializing by inviting a close friend on a stroll through a local park or on a hike.
Don't force yourself into situations that worsen your depression. Not every social situation is going to have a positive impact on your mood. If you think a noisy party or pessimistic acquaintance will only bring your mood down, it's okay to avoid the situation. Check in with your emotions after each social event. Do you feel better or worse than you did beforehand? Make a note of those feelings and use them to inform your future decisions.
Balancing introversion and social life
People commonly conflate introversion with shyness. It's true that some introverts are shy or experience social anxiety. However, you can be an introvert and still be at ease in social situations.
Introversion can mean that certain situations drain your energy while others energize you. Maybe you like going to parties but feel tired or overwhelmed within a few hours. Here are some tips on handling social situations.
Take short breaks. If you're spending a holiday with the family, you might feel fatigued by all of the interactions—even if they are enjoyable. Slip away into a quiet room or go for a walk on your own. After some brief alone time, you might feel ready to socialize again.
Be comfortable with turning down invitations. Imagine that someone invites you to a party on Saturday night, but you already have a busy weekend planned. It's okay to skip the party if you think it will leave you feeling overwhelmed or fatigued. You can always extend an invitation to hang out one-on-one with the party host at a later date.
Make your needs known. Be honest and upfront about how socializing can tire you out. The people who care about you most will be understanding and accommodating. You're also likely to find that some people in your social support network are also introverts with similar needs.
Humans are social animals. Even if being around people can sometimes seem overwhelming, intimidating, or tiring, you'll likely feel a sense of calm when you're around your closest friends or family. Whether work has you stressed out, you’re dealing with a financial crisis, or you're coping with a life-threatening illness, social support is vital to managing all manner of stressors, from daily concerns to your worst fears.
Authors: Sheldon Reid
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Last updated: October 21, 2022