The Psychology of Perceived Social Support
Humans are social creatures. We form connections naturally and thrive when supported by our circle of loved ones. Perceived social support, or the confidence that we will be supported by a network of individuals who love us in times of need, has a huge impact on quality of life, achievement and overall health.
Social support is the “experience of being valued, respected, cared about and loved by others who are present in one’s life.” Those people may be friends, partners, teachers or family members. Perceived social support is an incredible asset to individuals. Even when people with strong perceptions of social support are alone, they feel maintained because they believe in the network around them. Inversely, those with low perceived social support may feel alone even in the presence of others.
There are many scales available for measuring the perception of social support. These social support scales help in studies that link the concept to real benefits. Research shows that perceived social support can lessen stress and improve physical and mental wellness. The varying types of social support all play a role in the well-being of individuals and can be an indicator of how well they approach life’s struggles.
Types of Social Support
Social support comes in many forms. Individuals with strong perceived social support believe they will be given an array of types if they need it.
When you reach out to a friend at the end of a long day or settle into the arms of your partner, you are experiencing emotional support. A listening ear, empathy and physical expressions of care all fall into this category.
Appraisal, also known as esteem support, comes in the form of confidence building and encouragement. This type of social support gives the person on the receiving end strength to approach challenges. It often comes as a friend or family member reminding us of the traits that will help us overcome obstacles.
Informational support is what most of us would recognize as advice. Anytime someone provides suggestions, they are providing informational support. An example is a person who has overcome a health obstacle recounting his or her experience and treatment to someone with a new diagnosis.
Instrumental support, also known as tangible support, is when someone takes measurable burdens off the shoulders of another person. During a time of illness or challenges, someone providing tangible support may bring meals to a friend. Instrumental support also includes monetary contributions as well as help with chores or other responsibilities.
A blend of these types of social support leads to marked benefits for individuals. The positive results of social support are vast and documented.
Benefits of Social Support
Some important benefits of perceived social support include the following and more:
- Improved ability to cope with stress.
- Enhanced self-esteem.
- Increased lifespan.
- Improved health outcomes after illness or injury.
- Lessened cardiovascular risks.
Multiple studies point to how pervasive the benefits of social support are. From mental health to physical health, believing you have a network of people to support you impacts you throughout life.
A recent study published in Frontiers found that strong perceived social support from friends and family members reduced the risk of depressive symptoms in young adults. In fact, it played a bigger role than gender, self-esteem and sleep quality.
The benefits don’t end in adolescence, though. Throughout life, strong social support can help individuals overcome intense mental health struggles. A study about depression, perceived social support and loneliness published in BMC Psychiatry stated, “We found substantial evidence from prospective studies that people with depression who perceive their social support as poorer have worse outcomes in terms of symptoms, recovery and social functioning.”
While many studies have established perceived social support’s role in mental health, others have provided insight into incredible physical health outcomes. According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), “Laboratory studies show that when subjects are subjected to stress, emotional support reduces the usual sharp rise in blood pressure and increased secretion of damaging stress related hormones.” This can lessen the disease risks associated with stress that often plague people later in life.
AIS also highlighted other study results that emphasize the importance of perceived social support on physical health. Men who had high levels of stress but low perceptions of social support were more likely to die in the next seven years than men who had a good support network. Furthermore, a healthy relationship with a significant other at 50 years old was a leading factor indicating whether someone would be in good health at 80 years old.
Perceived social support clearly goes beyond just having a friend group and help when you need it. Your emotional and physical well-being are tied to how you interpret the reliability of your support network. If you feel that you have low perceived social support, there are actions you can take to improve it.
Improving Perceived Social Support
The effect of perceived social support is clearly huge. It is important to improve it when possible. While it may seem like social support is outside of the hands of the person impacted, there are steps that individuals can take to enhance their social support network. Here are a few:
- Reach Out: It can be hard to stay in touch with friends and family, especially when going through a depressive episode, but it may be the first step to feeling better. Answering your phone and messages or accepting invitations show others that you care. In turn, they will likely give you care when you most need it.
- Listen: When you listen to your friends and family and learn what is going on in their lives and how they feel about it, they will be more inclined to do the same for you when you need it. You will also understand them better, so you can feel confident in their support.
- Join Groups: If you do not have friends and family close by, you may have lower perceived social support. Putting yourself out there and cultivating new relationships can help you build a support network you can count on.
- Provide Social Support: Most importantly, be part of someone’s social support network. Recognize when your loved ones are going through something and assure them through your actions and words that you will always be there for them. These relationships are often two-way streets.
To learn more about perceived social support and help others improve it, consider an online bachelor in psychology. Psychology is a widely applicable course of study. Notre Dame College Online allows you to tailor your psychology degree to your needs with our customizable degree program. We make sure you are career-ready by ensuring you have the skills to treat the mind, body and spirit of patients.