Four Ways Social Support Makes You More Resilient

While much of the research on resilience focuses on individual strengths, it’s social support that may matter the most.

BY JILL SUTTIE, The Greater Good Science Center

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When my mother died, the first thing I did was call my two best friends. Like good friends will, they dropped everything and came to my rescue. Having them there made all the difference in getting through a very difficult period of my life.

Researchers haven’t always emphasized this kind of social support as a factor in individual resilience—that is, the ability to recover from hardship and move forward in a positive, adaptive way. Instead, they have placed a high premium on studying personal qualities, often relegating social context to a lesser role.

For example, studies have found that people who are happier, have a strong purpose in life, or higher levels of self-efficacy—the belief that they have control over their situation—seem to have an easier time recovering after disaster. Some of these personality factors have been shown to be protective, even for those who suffer from economic hardship, and can lead to better health outcomes, areduced risk of suicide, and a better recovery after the loss of a spouse or loved one.

Still, the research surrounding resiliency is complex and varied. In some cases, resiliency may look a bit different depending on the type of hardship being faced, like the loss of a spouse versus the long-term effects of childhood abuse. Certain protective factors that may help one group of people don’t necessarily help another. And somestudies show that resiliency is not a stable trait but fluctuates over time, suggesting that it is subject to developmental or environmental changes, not personal attributes alone.

Lost in the mix of resiliency research is the importance of social circumstances. How resilient we are may have as much or more to do with our social milieu and circle of support—our communities, our institutions, our cultural expectations—as it does with our personal strengths.

As resiliency researcher Elliot Friedman says, “The availability of social support in all its forms—instrumental support, emotional support, support with how you think about things—they all matter and help us in facing challenge.”

Though we may think it’s easier to change ourselves when it comes to facing adversity—to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, as they say—research suggests that positive relationships and supportive environments have an important role to play.

Positive social relationships are key to resilience

Having good social relationships is clearly a winning strategy in life, tied to greater psychological and physical well-being. Thus, it’s not surprising that social relationships also matter when it comes to resiliency, in part because they help us feel less stress when we are suffering.

Large-scale population studies have shown that positive relationships at one period of life predict less depression later. Social relationships are particularly protective for older adults, who might face declining cognitive abilities or health challenges.

“There are a lot of ways to consider what resiliency means; but there’s no question that social relationships are important for health,” says Friedman. “If you stack having few social relationships against other risk factors—like smoking and obesity—not being socially connected is as strong a risk factor for death.”

The reason may be that good social relationships seem to help us tamp down stress reactions, even when we just recall those relationships. In one study, wives who felt strongly in synch with their spouses felt less anticipatory reactivity toward a mild electric shock. And caring touch from a health care worker reduced pain in accident victims up to six months later, supporting the importance of empathic behaviors in patient care.

Supportive relationships also help those suffering from childhood abuse—especially “supportive relationships that foster attachment, guidance, reliable alliance, social integration, and reassurance of worth.” One study found that those children who’d suffered psychiatric distress—enough to be hospitalized—bounced back after adolescence to become better adjusted adults if they’d had positive social relationships and felt a sense of relatedness toward others.

As the American Psychological Association wrote in its resilience report: “Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance, help bolster a person’s resilience.”

Perhaps that’s why when we are in trouble, we naturally look to our social networks for help—whether they offer emotional support or simply a helping hand.

“Having friends you can talk to and share your concerns with, maybe having them help you get a perspective on things—that’s where social ties can be useful,” says Friedman.

To some extent, resiliency depends on culture

What is important for resiliency in one culture may be less important in another culture.

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