Social Support

In general, social support acts as an important stress buffer. The more social support people have, the less stress will have an opportunity to affect them in a negative way.

Social support seems to affect our balance of hormones. Adequate amounts of social support are associated with increases in levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which works to reduce anxiety levels and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system calming down responses. Oxytocin also stimulates our desire to seek others and increases our sense of attachment to those individuals who are important to us. Stressed people who have good social support receive an oxytocin boost which helps them feel less anxious, more confident in their ability to cope, and more drawn to other people (thus perpetuating the positive cycle of social support).

Oxytocin helps balance out other stress hormones such as vasopressin, which is associated with fight-or-flight behaviours. People who are stressed and who withdraw from others (rather than seeking out support) become more exposed to hormones like vasopressin than to oxytocin, with predictable negative effects. They may have more difficulty with interpersonal relationships with spouses, children, friends, and co-workers, and end up more isolated, frustrated and stressed than when they started.

Many people experiencing negative stress simply do not have adequate forms of social support available. They may feel uncomfortable asking for help from others. Or, they may be depressed enough to start to withdraw from others (a normal symptom of depression), further decreasing the amount of social support available. A lack of social support may produce more stress problems, and also become a self-fulfilling prophecy (where isolation begets further isolation).

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 30th 2008