Social Support

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Social Support
Chapter 10 Health, Stress, and Coping
Ways of Coping
Coping is defined as cognitive
and behavioral efforts to
manage specific demands that
people perceive as taxing their resources
(Folkman et al., 1986). This table illustrates
two major approaches to coping measured
by the Ways of Coping Questionnaire: problem focused and emotion focused. Ask
yourself which approach you usually take
when faced with stressors. Now rank the
coping skills under each major approach in
terms of how often you tend to use each.
Do you rely on just one or two, or do you
adjust your coping strategies to fit different
kinds of stressors?
Coping Skills
Problem-focused coping
Seeking social support
Planful problem solving
Emotion-focused coping
Positive reappraisal
Accepting responsibility
Escape/avoidance (wishful
“I stood my ground and fought for what I
“I talked to someone to find out more about the
“I made a plan of action, and I followed it.”
“I tried to keep my feelings to myself.”
“I didn’t let it get to me; I tried not to think
about it too much.”
“I changed my mind about myself.”
“I realized I brought the problem on myself.”
“I wished that the situation would go away or
somehow be over with.”
Source: Adapted from Folkman et al. (1986); Taylor (1995).
beliefs allow them to bring meaning to the death of a loved one or the devastation of
natural disasters that might otherwise seem senseless tragedies (Heppner et al., 2006;
Powell, Shahabi, & Thoreson, 2003; VandeCreek et al., 2002). Some individuals who use
humor to help them cope also show better adjustment and milder physiological reactivity to stressful events (Martin, 2001; Moran, 2002).
Social Support
social support network The friends
and social contacts on whom one can
depend for help and support.
Has a good friend ever given you comfort and reassurance during troubled times? If
so, you have experienced the value of social support in easing the impact of stressful
events. Social support consists of emotional, tangible, or informational resources provided by other people. These people might help to eliminate a stressor (by, say, fixing
your car), suggest how to deal with the stressor (by recommending a good mechanic),
or reduce a stressor’s impact by providing companionship and reassurance (Sarason,
Sarason, & Gurung, 1997). The people you can depend on for support make up your
social support network (Burleson, Albrecht, & Sarason, 1994).
The stress-reducing effects of social support have been documented in people dealing
with a wide range of stressors, including cancer, stroke, military combat, loss of loved
ones, natural disasters, arthritis, AIDS, and even ethnic discrimination (e.g., Boden-Albala
et al., 2005; Foster, 2000; Jason, Witter, & Torres-Harding, 2003; Penner, Dovidio, &
Albrecht, 2001; Savelkoul et al., 2000). Social support can have health benefits, too. For
example, students who get emotional support from friends show better immune system
functioning and than those with less adequate social support (Cohen & Herbert, 1996).
This may be why people in strong social support networks are less vulnerable to colds
and flu during exams and other periods of high academic stress (Kop et al., 2005;
Pressman et al., 2005; Taylor, Dickerson, & Klein, 2002). Having strong social support is
also associated with faster recovery from surgery or illness, possibly because helpful
friends and family members encourage patients to follow medical advice (Brummett
et al., 2005; Grassi et al., 2000; Krohne & Slangen, 2005; Taylor, 2002). Stronger social
networks are even associated with better mental functioning in old age (Barnes et al.,
2004). According to some researchers, having inadequate social support can be as
dangerous as smoking, obesity, or lack of exercise in that it nearly doubles a person’s risk
of dying from disease, suicide, or other causes (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988a,
1988b; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001; Rutledge et al., 2004).
Stress Mediators
FRIEND Even when
social support cannot
eliminate stressors, it can help people,
such as these breast cancer survivors, to
feel less anxious, more optimistic, more
capable of control, and more willing to
try new ways of dealing with stressors
(Trunzo & Pinto, 2003). Those who
provide support may feel better, too
(Brown et al., 2003).
Exactly how social support brings about its positive effects is not entirely clear. James
Pennebaker (1995, 2000) has suggested that social support may help prevent illness by
providing the person under stress with an opportunity to express pent-up thoughts and
emotions. Keeping important things to yourself, says Pennebaker, is itself a stressor. In
a laboratory experiment, for example, participants who were asked to deceive an experimenter showed elevated physiological arousal (Pennebaker & Chew, 1985). Further, the
spouses of suicide or accidental-death victims who do not or cannot confide their feelings to others are especially likely to develop physical illness during the year following
the death (Pennebaker & O’Heeron, 1984). Disclosing, even anonymously, the stresses
and traumas one has experienced is associated with enhanced immune functioning,
reduced physical symptoms, and decreased use of health services (Broderick,
Junghaenel, & Schwartz, 2005; Campbell & Pennebaker, 2003; Epstein, Sloan, & Marx,
2005; Sloan, Marx, & Epstein, 2005). This may explain why support groups for
problems ranging from bereavement to overeating to alcohol and drug abuse tend to
promote participants’ physical health (Taylor et al., 2002).
Research in this area is made more challenging by the fact that the relationship
between social support and the impact of stressors is not a simple one. For one thing,
the quality of social support can influence the ability to cope with stress, but the reverse
may also be true: Your ability to cope may determine the quality of the social support
you receive (McLeod, Kessler, & Landis, 1992). People who complain endlessly about
stressors but never do anything about them may discourage social support, whereas
those with an optimistic, action-oriented approach may attract support.
Second, social support refers not only to your relationships with others but also to
the recognition that others care and will help (Demaray & Malecki, 2002). Some relationships in a seemingly strong social network can be stormy, fragile, or shallow, resulting in interpersonal conflicts that can have an adverse effect on health (Ben-Ari & Gil,
2002; Malarkey et al., 1994).
Third, having too much support or the wrong kind of support can be as bad as not
having enough (Reynolds & Perrin, 2004). Dangerous behaviors such as smoking, for
example, can be harder to give up if one’s social support network consists entirely of
smokers. People whose friends and family overprotect them from stressors may actually put less energy into coping efforts or have less opportunity to learn effective coping strategies. And if the efforts of people in a social support network become annoying, disruptive, or interfering, they can increase stress and intensify psychological
problems (Newsome, 1999; Newsome & Schulz, 1998). It has even been suggested that
among people under intense stress, the benefits of having a large social support network may be offset by the dangers of catching a cold or the flu from people in that
network (Hamrick, Cohen, & Rodriguez, 2002).
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