Even people who prefer their own company are likely to experience times when the support of others is welcomed and valued. Most of us take our social networks for granted but it’s when we need help that we truly feel the benefit of support. The type of support required depends on our needs and this indicates that more than one kind of social support exists.
We can think of social support in terms of what is actually being done to assist us and how this makes us feel. Imagine, for example, two people at work doing exactly the same job. One day the workload increases and both begin to feel the pressure. The boss picks up what is happening and provides exactly the same amount of practical support to both people. As a result one person feels huge relief but the other remains stressed. The scenario is a reflection of what we know to be true in life. Some people receive a great deal of practical and emotional support from friends or relatives yet they feel relatively unsupported. It’s a characteristic that some psychologists have taken an interest in, particularly as it seems to affect health.
Some experts have unpacked social support even further. Cohen and Wills, for example, view social support in four different ways. They refer to esteem support which is to do with the way others make you feel valued. Informational support is the helpful tips and pointers we get from friends or official sources. Instrumental support relates to material things like money whereas social companionship is the support we get from being with others.
It’s not easy to measure how someone perceives support, but we can measure the effect of actual support. Because of this we know, for example, that low levels of social relationships are associated with an increased risk of mortality. For example, studies into breast cancer show that longer survival is associated with women who have more friendships and deeper friendships and who work outside of the home.
Social relationships appear to enhance health regardless of stress. In fact the health benefits of social support appear most evident during periods of high stress. In this regard social support seems to act as a kind of reserve and a resource that dampens the worse effects of stress and enables the person to cope more effectively during periods of high stress.