Having a shoulder to lean on is a much-appreciated gesture and can be an essential lifeline when the going gets tough. This has never been truer for most South Africans than it is now, in the lockdown period when people have found themselves alone in their homes for weeks on end. A simple act of talking to someone about the difficulties you are facing can make them seem manageable and make you feel less alone in dealing with them. Similarly, a listening ear – with no advice being given – can be so comforting. Sometimes you just want to be heard. These are examples of social support.
What is social support?
Social support is an act that communicates caring or comfort and it facilitates adaptive coping by providing assistance, information or resources. At a basic level, social support is having access to people that you can turn to in times of need or crisis and even someone to share good news with. This support gives you a broader capacity to deal with problems, challenges and anything else that life throws at you. It works best when it is reciprocated, as you get the opportunity to support others, just as you have been supported yourself. The support can come from various people including family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, health professionals, support groups and sometimes even strangers.
Why is it so important?
Social support is an important protective factor for dealing with life’s difficulties. Studies on happiness by Diener and Seligman have shown how social support enhances the quality of life and provides a cushion against adverse life events. Research has documented many physiological and mental health benefits of social support, including improved immune and cardiovascular function; positive adjustment to chronic disease; decreased depression and anxiety, and effective buffering against the negative effects of stress (Umberson & Montez).
People who have satisfying relationships report feeling happy more frequently while sadness is experienced less frequently. They report being more satisfied with their lives. This is likely caused by the belief that they have the ability to deal with challenges and should they fail, they have a support system or resources they can access for help. This, in turn, increases their self-esteem and gives them a sense of autonomy. Another possibility is the fact that providing support to others may give one a sense of meaning and purpose.
Nurturing social support
It is more important than ever during this lockdown period to have support that you can benefit from when you are in need. This doesn’t mean you need a huge network of friends and family. Some find support from just a handful of people, be they neighbours or friends from church. Also, social skills may not come naturally for some people, as some find it hard to make social connections, while others lose their established connections for a number of reasons, including relocation, death or retirement. Whatever your situation, it is always possible to forge new connections and develop a support network while nurturing existing connections.
In next week’s blog we’ll outline ways in which you can grow your social support networks.
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Silindokuhle is an Industrial/Organisational Psychologist registered with the HPCSA. She holds a Master’s degree from UKZN and runs an independent practice specialising in psychological assessments, training and wellbeing.