What is social support and why is it important?

Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate enough to have enjoyed a close circle of friends, many acquaintances and a loving family. Over the years I’ve also been able to tap into other support networks and communities. But not everybody finds it so easy to access this kind of social support.

So what exactly does social support mean? There are many definitions, but in general it means the support accessible to an individual through social ties to other individuals, groups and the larger community. You might receive different types of social support in times of physical, psychological, emotional and financial need.

What are the four types of social support?

The following types of social support were identified by psychologists Carolyn Catrona and Julie Suhrs in their Social Support Behavior Code: informational, esteem, network and emotional.

  1. Informational support
    Suggestions or advice on how to handle different situations.
    Referral to other sources of help and support.
    Inviting an individual to reassess or redefine the situation they find themselves in.
    Imparting information or teaching skills needed to deal with a situation.
  2. Esteem support
    Positive affirmation about the individual or their abilities.
    Validating the individual’s perspective.
    Alleviating the individual’s feelings of guilt.
  3. Network support
    Providing access to new connections and companions.
    Spending time with the individual, being there for them.
    Access to other individuals with similar interests or experiences.
  4. Emotional support
    Expressing sympathy, caring and concern for the individual’s situation or distress.
    Expressing empathy and understanding of the individual’s situation, often disclosing a similar situation.
    Providing encouragement and hope to the individual.

Other experts add a fifth type of social support: tangible or physical support, which means physically providing an individual with necessary goods or services.

This provides a useful checklist against which you can judge whether or not you are getting enough social support.

What are the benefits of social support?

According to an article published on the research and reference site psychology.iresearchnet.com, the presence of a support network has been found to reduce the negative effects of stress and stressful events. It can also increase an individual’s self-esteem and boost positive behaviours such as exercise, better eating habits and proper rest.

Social support also has beneficial effects on health and wellbeing, as well as improved adjustment to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. In fact, having a strong support network has been correlated with lower mortality rates, less depression and anxiety. If you have strong social ties, you are more likely to live longer.

Studies have shown that social integration affects mortality from diseases such as diabetes, and those who report lower social involvement are 1.5 times more likely to have a first-time acute myocardial infarction (heart attack).

There is also a distinction to be made here between perceived and conditional social support. Perceived support is the support that an individual believes is available to them, regardless of whether or not that is true. You might perceive support from those with whom you are intimately involved, even though that support has not been tested. But perceiving it correlates closely with improved health and wellbeing and heightens the belief that you are able to cope with life’s ups and downs.

Conditional support has strings attached and is only given when certain requirements or expectations have been fulfilled — but it is, surprisingly enough, correlated with actual support.

There is also a bonus in store if you choose to give rather than receive social support. A study conducted by Tristen Inakagi and Edward Orehek at the Department of Psychology of the University of Pittsburgh showed that freely providing support to others inhibits stress responses and improves wellbeing, positive affect and self-esteem, particularly when the support is perceived to be effective.

How can I improve my social support network?

If you don’t have a supportive social circle, trying to build one might seem like an insurmountable task. But there are some simple steps you can take — if you have the motivation to do so.

You could start by joining groups that fit with your interests, or developing relationships with social media friends. Then think about volunteering in your local community — giving back will connect you with other people and boost your wellbeing.

You could also join a fitness group or parkrun, which will give you the benefits of exercise as well as social connection. Another option is to sign up for a group class online, where you’re more likely to meet people who are open to new experiences.

Maybe you have a colleague or neighbour you could confide in? Look to different people for different types of support (see the four types of social support). At the end of the day, if you make time for others, they will make time for you.

How Zgmund can help with social support

If you’re not ready to take the leap and reach out to new people or deepen existing relationships, there’s a new way of receiving social support online.

Zgmund App offers anonymous emotional support groups facilitated by super-empathic psychological AI. You can reach out to like-minded people, ask for support and share your feelings without judgment in a totally safe and secure environment. You’ll also be matched with participants who have similar interests so there will always be something to talk about.

Zgmund’s users report significant emotional relief after a 20-minute chat — so why not join our waitlist so you can experience a group session with Zgmund and find the support you need.

First published on Zgmund.com on May 25, 2021.

Beverley Glick is a former national newspaper journalist who believes in the magic of language and the power of a story well told.