“A problem shared is a problem halved” – as the saying goes. And research backs this up: having someone to talk to is good for our mental health. It lowers anxiety and protects against depression. And it helps us to manage our stress levels – something more important than ever in these difficult times. April is Stress Awareness Month – and the 2022 theme is ‘community’. So it’s the perfect time to take a look at social support and stress. Here’s how the people around us can help us cope with and build resilience to it.

What is stress?

Stress is very common. It’s the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure – that old evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response. Stress isn’t always bad. It can motivate us to achieve our goals, and can help us meet the demands of work, home and family life. But too much stress is a problem. It can affect our mood, behaviour, body and relationships. We can feel anxious and irritable, and struggle with confidence and self-esteem.

Stress may be acute, short-term and related to a specific temporary situation or circumstance – such as redundancy or a relationship breakup. It may also be more long-term, or ‘chronic’, such as stress due to a demanding job, toxic workplace, bad relationship, family difficulties, financial problems – or the ongoing stress and anxiety caused by a global pandemic or the cost of living crisis.

Both chronic and acute stress produce physical changes in our bodies. Our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure increases, and our brains are flooded with stress hormones.

Chronic stress, even if it’s low-level, can also lead to feelings of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. This is often called burnout, and points to an imbalance between what we’re giving out to the world and what we’re taking for ourselves. But things don’t have to get that bad before you take action or seek help.

One of the things that can help mitigate stress is social support – which has been shown to be enormously important for our physical and mental health.

What is social support?

So what do we mean by social support? It’s simply the support available to you through social ties to other individuals, groups and the wider community. The US National Cancer Institute defines social support as: “a network of family, friends, neighbours and community members that is available in times of need to give psychological, physical and financial help.”

Does it matter how many people you have available to provide social support? Anthropologist Robin Dunbar is famous for Dunbar’s number, which he proposed in the 1990s. This is the maximum number of people your brain can cope with maintaining stable social relationships with. It’s reckoned to be about 150. Dunbar explained it as: “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

But, while quantity and quality both matter, most research shows that it’s the quality of our relationships that’s the best predictor of good physical and mental health. It’s possible to have a large number of acquaintances in your social network, but still feel lonely. So one close friend is better than an army of acquaintances – or thousands of Facebook friends!

Types of social support – and how they help combat stress

Social support can come from various people and in many forms – all of which can help us cope with and build resilience to the stress in our lives. Some of the main types are:

  • Emotional / psychological support. This includes a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, receiving love, empathy or companionship, affirmations of someone’s worth, concern about their feelings. Think about how you feel after you’ve talked a problem through with a close friend. You feel better, right?
  • Esteem support. Related to this is esteem support, which is social support that provides a feeling of self-worth and usefulness to help cope with stress.
  • Companionship. This is where close individuals are able to spend recreational time together recuperating from stress.
  • Informational support. This involves sharing advice or information that can help someone cope with a situation that they don’t know how to handle. It may include pointing them in the direction of helpful resources, and sharing experiences.
  • Tangible support. This is more practical and pragmatic, and includes sharing resources. It could include lending money. But it might be helping with childcare or moving house. It could simply be cooking a meal for a friend who’s feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation.
  • Belonging support. This includes spending time with friends who may need support. It’s also about including people in groups, and providing social, leisure and community activities. And it’s a type of support where communities can be enormously helpful.

These different types of social support work together, and create different options for preventing, coping with and building resilience to stress.

Benefits of social support for stress: how it helps us cope

Stress management is often seen as an individual concern – something we just have to learn to do on our own. (See our previous post on 10 ways to manage stress for some tips.) But friends, family and our communities play a big role too. Social support has been shown to have a mitigating effect on stress – and it helps us build resilience.

Psychological resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity. And we’ve all had to cope with hard times in recent years. There are plenty of research studies that show that social support is a key factor in helping us build this resilience. Research even suggests that community resilience can help mitigate the stress that results from war and terror and natural disasters.

Ways in which social support helps us cope with and build resilience to stress include:

  • A buffer against stress. Much research has focused on the ‘buffer model’ – the idea that social support acts as a buffer against stressful situations. It’s one of the main benefits of emotional / psychological support. This may include stopping us from reacting negatively to a stressful situation by redefining it as not stressful; or reducing our anxiety about something that’s stressing us out.
  • Release of calming brain chemicals. Social support has been shown to be highly correlated with the release of a hormone called oxytocin. This is a brain chemical that creates a calming effect – especially when you’re under stress. And it’s released when you’re interacting with others. Research shows that the closer you are to the people you’re interacting with, the more oxytocin is released.
  • Physiological benefits. Social support helps reduce the physical symptoms of stress. A 2014 study by the University of Utah showed that social support reduces blood pressure. There’s also research evidence that social support lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and can lower heart rate.
  • A sense of belonging. This helps protect against stress, depression and anxiety. One study even suggests a feeling of belonging can help protect against the psychological impact of COVID.
  • Solving practical problems. Both informational and tangible support can help us overcome practical problems that may be causing us stress. Whether that’s getting out of debt, finding a job or juggling work and childcare, these types of supportive solutions for stress can help us deal with the things life throws at us.
  • Protection against depression. Stress, especially chronic stress, can lead to depression. Lots of studies support the finding that social support helps bounce back from – or even avoid – depression.

Social support can be great for lowering your stress levels. We all have stressful situations in our lives. But having the support of friends, family and community makes them less damaging to our mental health and wellbeing. Over time, learning to cope with and manage our stress helps us build resilience. Building a network of supportive friends may take time and effort – but it’s worth it for the support you can provide to each other in difficult times.

To mark Stress Awareness Month, we’re offering 50% off an annual subscription to our Self-care offering for the month of April. Self-care is our therapy app created by psychologists, packed with educational courses to help you deal with anxiety, depression, stress or whatever’s on your mind. Just use the code DESTRESS to claim your discount.