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For as long as humans have existed, so have communities. Whether during Paleolithic times or the modern era, humans have banded together to live their lives as a collective to survive and thrive, both physically and emotionally. While the dynamics of the community have shifted greatly over time, one constant remains — everyone needs a social support system in their lives to maintain optimal physical and mental health. And when you’re suffering from a chronic condition such as an autoimmune disease, support is even more important. (Source)
In this article we’ll explore exactly how social support affects health, and break down seven ways to build a strong network of support that will carry you through times of stress.
What Is a Social Support System?
Simply put, our social support system is the collective of relationships we have with our spouses/significant others, family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and even acquaintances — people we can turn to for help in times of need. This support network operates in multi-faceted ways to help us navigate the ups and downs of life in a healthy, resilient way. Think of this network as the safety net you can fall into when the going gets tough. People with this kind of support in their life enjoy better mental health and a decreased risk of all-cause mortality. (Source)
Depending on the situation, your social support system may provide you with different types of assistance including:
tangible, or instrumental support: help with physical tasks such as errands and chores, or providing you with financial aid
emotional support: offered in the way of empathy, reassurance, and understanding for the stressful event you are facing
informational support: the sharing of useful information to assist you through a difficult time, often in the form of guidance or advice
Regardless of the type of support extended, the act of support serves as a “buffer” between you and the stressful event you’re dealing with, lessening the negative effect it has on you. It’s the equivalent of being tackled while wearing a helmet and full set of padding, instead of taking the hit unprotected.
But having a social support system isn’t just important for hard times — it helps you stay healthy in the good times, too!
Participation and integration in social groups helps you stay motivated, keep good habits (such as exercising and eating healthy), stay informed, and ward off feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. (Source, Source)
Social Support as a Spectrum
It’s important to remember, too, that in the same way you need different kinds of support for different situations, you need a group of people you can rely on as well — it’s unrealistic to think that one person can provide all of the support you need, all of the time. The type of support you need and the person you desire it from will also ebb and flow through the different stages of life.
Take childhood, for example. A child requires a great deal of tangible support from their parents to survive in the first years of life, until they progressively become more and more independent. In adolescence the support dynamic shifts drastically, and while tangible support is still needed, emotional and informational support become paramount to help the child prepare for adulthood.
People again revert to requiring a great deal of tangible support in old age, relying on their support system to help with activities of daily living. Emotional support remains hugely important in this age group as well, however, to keep loneliness at bay. (Source)
Support Through a Chronic Illness
Stress and illness feed one another, both in the sense that stress can trigger or exacerbate illnesses — particularly autoimmune diseases — and that those who are chronically ill may experience high levels of stress around their diagnoses. It’s the definition of a vicious cycle. Having a support system in place to help buffer that stress is imperative! (Source)
When someone is chronically ill, their health care team becomes one of the most important parts of their support network, offering information needed to successfully navigate daily life. Finding other people with the same condition and banding together in a community for emotional and tangible support is also imperative — anyone who’s navigated such an illness knows the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanies it, and the importance of a community who understands and can empathize.
At WellTheory, we provide various levels of support to our clients to improve their quality of life through 1:1 health coaching, masterclasses and resources, and access to a community of peers for a whole-person approach to care. Support is at the core of what we do, because we know it’s essential for health.
7 Ways to Build Strong Relationships
In order to have social support in your life, you must first establish social relationships through social integration, which ultimately forms your social network. Social networks take time and effort to build. And, like most things in life, the quality of your social relationships and network will be a direct reflection of the effort exerted.
When you think about how to grow and strengthen your network, consider what stage of life you’re currently in and what circumstances define your reality at this moment in time. This can give you a place to start when thinking about the types of relationships and help you need in your life.
All relationships require give and take — we have to give of our own time, resources, and energy to provide value to another person, and vice versa, to build a social connection that can grow into a mutually beneficial relationship.
Here are some practical tips to help you build strong relationships and grow your social network:
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1. Take Inventory of Your Current Support System
As you think through who makes up your support system, count anyone in your life who you could turn to in a time of need. This may include your spouse or significant other, family members, friends, neighbors, members of your support groups, people who attend the same church or activities as you, caregivers, your health care team, social service providers, and so on.
Once you’ve identified these relationships, consider who in this pool of people could or would provide you with the different types of support mentioned above (i.e., tangible, emotional, and informative). Are you lacking in any of those categories? If so, that’ll be important to keep in mind as you explore where and how you’d like to expand your support network.
2. Develop Time Management Skills
It may seem like common sense, but relationships don’t develop (and can’t be maintained) without a concerted effort from both parties. It takes time to get to know someone and establish a supportive, mutually beneficial relationship. Then, once established, you have to invest time to keep in touch with that person, offer a listening ear, spend time partaking in activities together, and so on. Time is a key component in all stages of a relationship, yet many people feel they simply don’t have time to spare. Instead of waiting to have time, make time. Schedule relationship building and maintenance into your daily routine, just as you would anything else you do for your health. Show people you care by making them a priority!
3. Practice the Golden Rule
You’ve heard it many times before and for good reason (it’s important!) — treat others as you want to be treated. If you want people to show up and support you when you need it most then you have to do that for them as well. Want someone to lend a listening ear when you need advice? Make an effort to be that listening ear for them in return. Need to pick someone’s brain for guidance? Make sure you’re available to reciprocate when they need it, too. Respect boundaries, validate and make space for the other person’s feelings, show support, always be honest, and show them you’re reliable and trustworthy. In short, think about the kind of friend you want, and be that friend to someone else!
4. Become an Active Listener
People often hear things without listening, to the detriment of their relationships. Learn to become an active listener and your connections with others will benefit exponentially. Instead of thinking of what you want to say next or allowing your mind to wander while the other person is talking, actively listen to what they’re saying, and offer positive affirmations throughout to let them know you’re engaged (such as nodding, smiling, laughing, and giving the occasional “mmm hmm”). Be mindful not to interrupt, and when they’re finished talking ask follow-up questions to learn more. Resist the temptation to shift the focus back on yourself (which is harder to do than it sounds!).
5. Move Forward Confidently
You don’t need to wait for people to reach out to you — take the initiative and reach out to them instead! It’s easier than ever to let someone know you’re thinking of them with a quick text or direct message on social media. Email is another great way to stay in touch when there’s not time or opportunity for an in-person or phone conversation. Stepping outside of our comfort zones is harder for some than others, so if it’s uncomfortable take it slow. Start building your confidence by being the first one to text, or the first to invite someone to an event.
6. Trust Your Gut
When working to build new relationships, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone will be a good match for your personality — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!
To assess the health or fit of a relationship, ask yourself questions like:
Do I enjoy the other person’s company?
After we’ve spent time together, do I feel better or worse than I did before I saw them?
Are our interactions uplifting or draining?
Does the other person put me down, or make me feel badly about myself?
Do they care as much about me as I do about them? Are they putting an equal amount of work into maintaining our relationship?
If a connection feels forced or unhealthy in any way — for example, if you feel you’re not getting back from the relationship what you’re putting in — there’s no reason to continue investing time into it. After all, the goal is to build lasting, supportive relationships that you can count on for the long haul, not amass as many social connections as possible. Prioritize quality over quantity, and spend time with people who make you feel good and challenge you to be the best version of yourself.
7. Establishing New Connections
Meeting new people isn’t always easy as an adult (anyone else miss the days when you could gain a friend by sharing your yogurt on the playground?), but here are some ideas for places and ways you can establish new relationships at any age:
Join a club. Think of the hobbies and activities you enjoy most and find a local (or virtual) group that gathers around that topic. There’s a club for every interest!
Seek out a support group. Whether you’re suffering from an autoimmune disease or chronic illness, just experienced a deep loss, are battling through mental challenges or addiction, or just want to join other people in the same stage of life as you who will understand your struggles, finding a support group could be a game changer. Again, this could be done in-person or virtually, depending on your preference and bandwidth. A quick Google search will yield countless online groups to explore.
Meet your neighbors. Start taking walks around your neighborhood and engage in small talk with people living on your street, or make an effort to hold the elevator and say hello to that person in your apartment building that you’ve crossed paths with numerous times but haven’t spoken to yet. Apps like Nextdoor can also be a great way to connect with neighbors and find events in your area.
Become a member of a church or social organization. Joining together with people who share your faith can be a powerful way to build support in your life. Many churches (or other social organizations, such as women’s clubs) are highly focused on bringing members together around shared experiences.
Join a gym or fitness studio. Not only will you meet people, you’ll be doing something beneficial for your health at the same time! If you’re suffering from an autoimmune condition or any other type of chronic illness, talk to your health care team about the best type of exercise for your specific situation.
Take a class. Lots of community colleges offer free or low-cost classes, and online learning spaces such as Masterclass, offer a way to learn within a community of peers about topics ranging from cooking and home repair to wellness, writing, and business.
Volunteer. Few things in life are more rewarding than helping others, and there are endless ways to volunteer your time toward that end. Homeless shelters, food pantries, local hospitals, museums, community centers, libraries, churches and the like all need help from volunteers to deliver their mission to the people they serve.
Seek out professional organizations. Joining a professional organization related to your career will not only grow your support network but your skillset as well — a true win-win situation! There’s an organization for practically every profession on the planet, and plenty of opportunities for those who are already retired to serve in mentoring roles as well.
The Bottom Line on Social Support
Numerous studies have shown the positive health benefits of maintaining a network of strong social relationships, specifically people who you can count on for tangible, emotional, and informational support during difficult times. People with these types of social support systems have a decreased risk of all cause mortality and lower rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. It’s especially important if you suffer from a chronic illness — such as an autoimmune disease — to surround yourself with support. The bottom line is simple — your quality of life improves when you share it with others! So whether you choose to actively seek out new relationships to grow your social support network or simply recommit to strengthening the ones you already have, know that you’re not only making an investment in your physical and mental health, but the health of others as well.