A strong social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times, whether you've had a bad day at work or a year filled with loss or chronic illness. And the lack of social support can lead to isolation and loneliness. Since supportive family, friends and co-workers are such an important part of your life, it's never too soon to cultivate these important relationships.
What is a social support network?
A social support network is made up of friends, family and peers. Social support is different from a support group, which is generally a structured meeting run by a lay leader or mental health professional.
Although both support groups and support networks can play an important role in times of stress, a social support network is something you can develop when you're not under stress. It provides the comfort of knowing that your friends are there for you if you need them.
You don't need to formalize your support network. A coffee break with a friend at work, a quick chat with a neighbor, a phone call to your sibling, a visit to a house of worship or volunteer work are all ways to develop and foster lasting relationships with others.
Risks of isolation and benefits of social support
Studies have demonstrated that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a greater risk of poor mental health and poor cardiovascular health, as well as other health problems. Other studies have shown the benefit of a network of social support, including the following:
- Improving the ability to cope with stressful situations
- Alleviating the effects of emotional distress
- Promoting lifelong good mental health
- Enhancing self-esteem
- Lowering cardiovascular risks, such as lowering blood pressure
- Promoting healthy lifestyle behaviors
- Encouraging adherence to a treatment plan
Cultivating your social support network
If you want to improve your mental health and your ability to combat stress, surround yourself with at least a few good friends and confidants. Here are some ideas for building your social network:
- Volunteer. Pick a cause that's important to you and get involved. You're sure to meet others who share similar interests and values.
- Join a gym or fitness group. Incorporating physical fitness into your day is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. You can make friends while you exercise. Look at gyms in your area or check a local community center.
- Take a class. A local college or community education course puts you in contact with others who share similar hobbies or pursuits.
- Look online. Social networking sites can help you stay connected with friends and family. Many good sites exist for people going through stressful times, such as chronic illness, loss of a loved one, a new baby, divorce and other life changes. Be sure to stick to reputable sites, and be cautious about arranging in-person meetings.
Give and take: The foundation of social networks
A successful relationship is a two-way street that requires your active participation. Here are some suggestions for nurturing your relationships:
- Stay in touch. Answering phone calls, returning emails and reciprocating invitations let people know you care.
- Don't compete. Be happy instead of jealous when your friends succeed.
- Be a good listener. Listen when your friends are speaking. Find out what's important to them.
- Don't overdo it. Be careful not to overwhelm friends and family with phone calls and emails. Save those high-demand times for when you really need them.
- Appreciate your friends and family. Take time to say thank you and express how important they are to you.
- Give back. Be available for family and friends when they need support.
The bottom line
Remember that a goal of building your social support network is to reduce your stress level, not add to it. Watch for situations that seem to drain your energy. For example, avoid spending too much time with someone who is constantly negative and critical. Similarly, steer clear of people involved in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse.
Taking the time to build a social support network is a wise investment not only in your mental well-being but also in your physical health and longevity. Start making more friends or improving the relationships you already have. Whether you're the one getting the support or the one doling out the encouragement, you'll reap rewards.