Social support can be defined as the emotional comfort and security given to us by friends, relatives, coworkers, and others. It is the contentment we feel from being a part of a community that loves us and cares for us, and that will help us through difficult situations in our lives.

In 1976, psychiatrist Sidney Cobb delivered a Presidential Address to the American Psychosomatic Society on the importance of social support. In his address, Cobb defined social support as “the individual belief that one is cared for and loved, esteemed and valued, and belongs to a network of communication and mutual obligations.”

The History of Social Support

The scientific study and discussion of social support began in the early 20th century. In 1927, Francis W. Peabody gave a speech at Harvard Medical School during a course on the role of the physician in providing emotional support for the patient. He spoke of the importance of individualizing and humanizing medical care, and his speech became a paradigm for all physicians. In his words:

“The essence of the practice of medicine is that it is an intensely personal matter.... The treatment of a disease may be entirely impersonal; the care of a patient must be completely personal. The significance of the intimate personal relationship between physician and patient cannot be too strongly emphasized, for in an extraordinarily large number of cases both diagnosis and treatment are directly dependent on it.”

In 1938, Henry A. Murray wrote Explorations in Personality, a book that set forth a comprehensive theory of human personality and is still considered a classic in psychology. In this book, Murray writes that we seek out social support because we need to feel a sense of belonging and being cared for for our emotional well-being.

In 1947, shortly after World War II, Dr. Francis J. Braceland, an internationally known psychiatrist at the time, reported that high morale among troops was one of the most important preventative measures against psychiatric casualties. Dr. William C. Menninger, who became the Director of Psychiatry, Consultants Division in the office of the Surgeon General of the United States Army, noted that during the war, “we seemed to learn anew the importance of group ties in the maintenance of mental health.”

Conversely, in 1949, the Journal of Nervous Mental Disorders published a study conducted by Dr. R. L. Swank, which concluded that every soldier in the Normandy campaign who had lost at least 75 percent of his buddies developed combat exhaustion. Dr. D. D. Reid reported nearly identical findings for bomber crews in the Royal Air Force.

In 1948, Drs. Coch and French conducted an experiment that was published in the journal Human Relations in which they studied people working at a pajama factory. They demonstrated that the mastery of a new task was easier and took less time when the workers were under supportive conditions. The factory management invited the workers to collaborate in the planning and implementation of a change, and the participation significantly decreased the time needed to get back to full production once the change was made.

Types of Social Support

Dr. J. S. House described four types of social support in his 1981 article, Work, Stress, and Social Support. The first of these is emotional support, which generally comes from close friends and family and is the most common form of social support. This form of support includes love, trust, empathy, concern, and caring.

Appraisal support involves positive evaluation, and comes in the form of affirmations, feedback, and social comparisons. This support can come from friends, family, coworkers, or peers. Informational support includes helpful advice and suggestions that help people to respond to personal or situational demands. Finally, instrumental support involves help in the form of money, time, assistance, or other direct interventions on the person’s behalf.

Benefits of Social Support

Social support has been found to help us live longer, deal with stress more effectively, prevent diseases and emotional disorders, and recover from life-threatening conditions.

One of the first studies of social support and its relationship to physical disease was conducted in 1953 by Drs. Chambers and Reiser. They found that heart disease was directly related to emotionally charged events, and that emotional support had extraordinarily beneficial effects on the course of the disease. Dr. Lawrence Egbert and colleagues reported a decade later that surgical patients who were given special supportive care by the anesthetist didn’t need as much pain medication and were discharged almost three days earlier on average than patients who didn’t receive this support.

Social support has been shown to be particularly important in the prevention of tuberculosis and asthma. Using the Berle Index, a test of social and psychological characteristics of a patient, Dr. Holmes and colleagues showed in 1952 that those who scored low on this scale were less likely to recover after treatment. Drs. Chen and Cobb later concluded in their review published in the Journal of Chronic Diseases that tuberculosis may be a disease of social isolation. A 1973 study conducted by de Araujo and van Arsdel showed that asthmatic patients who scored low on the Berle Index needed three to four times as much steroids than those who scored high on the index.

More recently, Dr. John Sheridan, a professor of molecular virology/immunology and oral biology at Ohio State University, concluded that social support is highly important in maintaining good health, and that socially isolated people get sick more often and have a more difficult time recovering from an illness.

Sheridan explains that people with less social support are more prone to disease and viral infection because our immune system is influenced by stress. Stress compromises our immune system, making us more susceptible to infectious diseases.

A 2011 UCLA brain-imaging study showed that giving support to others provides benefits to the giver. When women were allowed to give emotional support to their boyfriends, who were receiving painful electric shocks, the areas of their brains associated with pleasure and stress-relief were activated.

The Role of Stress and Loneliness

The stress brought on by social isolation has been linked to a host of harmful health conditions. According to the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study, a longitudinal study of white, black, and Latino men and women, people who reported feeling the most alone had blood pressure levels that were more than 14 points higher than people who reported feeling the least lonely. Another study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2007, showed that people who ranked high on the loneliness scale were twice as likely to develop dementia.

The research of John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, demonstrates that lonely people are more likely to be depressed, have fewer positive social interactions, suffer from alcoholism, and report higher levels of distress. The negative and stressful emotions associated with chronic loneliness can influence the expression of our genes, making us more likely to develop disease, explains internationally renowned health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola. This is evidenced by the new science of epigenetics, which has proven that our attitude, diet, and other lifestyle factors change the function of our genes.

Dr. Mercola recommends creating more fulfilling social relationships, learning to enjoy time alone, or even buying a pet to combat loneliness. Studies have shown that owning a dog positively impacts the survival rates of heart attack victims, and that people on Medicare or Medicaid who own pets make fewer visits to the doctor. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that:

“The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.”

Other ways to improve social support include exploring new interests and hobbies, joining a club or organization, volunteering, or simply making an effort to re-establish old relationships or cultivate new ones.

Author's Bio: 

Michael Locklear is the cofounder of The Global Peace Project, and has served as its President since 1986. He is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Total Health, and he has conducted more than thirty years of research into the science of the mind, health and nutrition, human behavior, and emotional well-being. He exposes the lies propagated by the government, medical professionals, the food industry, and the media and unveils the truth about what it takes to break the hypnotic trances that block our ability to achieve total health, wealth, and happiness.

For information on Michael’s research, visit his site, Natural-Remedies-for-Total-Health.com, which provides well-researched and scientifically supported advice on how to achieve a balance of the mind, brain, and body, resulting in total health.