How Social Support Contributes to Psychological Health

Friends can provide social support.

 JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images

Social support is often identified as a key component of solid relationships and strong psychological health, but what exactly does it mean? Essentially, social support involves having a network of family and friends that you can turn to in times of need.

Whether you are facing a personal crisis and need immediate assistance, or you just want to spend time with people who care about you, these relationships play a critical role in how you function in your day-to-day life.

It is social support that builds people up during times of stress and often gives them the strength to carry on and even thrive.

But social support is certainly not a one-way street. In addition to relying on others, you also serve as a form of support for many people in your life. 

Why Strong Social Support Is So Important

Psychologists and other mental health professionals often talk about the importance of having a strong social support network. When trying to reach our goals or deal with a crisis, experts frequently implore people to lean on their friends and family for support.

Research has also demonstrated the link between social relationships and many different aspects of health and wellness. Poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness and has been shown to alter brain function and increase the risk of the following:

  • Alcohol use
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Suicide

In one study of middle-aged men over a seven-year period, those with strong social and emotional support were less likely to die than those who lacked such relationships.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Social Support vs. Integration

So, which aspects of our social environments are so vital to health? And how exactly do our social environments impact our overall well-being? There are two essential aspects of our social worlds that contribute to health: social support and social integration.

Social Support

Social support refers to the psychological and material resources provided by a social network to help individuals cope with stress. Such social support may come in different forms, and might involve:

  • Helping a person with various daily tasks when they are ill or offering financial assistance when they are in need
  • Giving advice to a friend when they are facing a difficult situation
  • Providing caring, empathy, and concern for loved ones in need

Social Integration

Social integration is the actual participation in various social relationships, ranging from romantic partnerships to friendships. This integration involves emotions, intimacy, and a sense of belonging to different social groups, including being part of a:

  • Family
  • Partnership
  • Religious community
  • Social activity

Experts suggest that being integrated into such social relationships confers a protective benefit against maladaptive behaviors and damaging health consequences.

Types of Social Support

Supportive social networks can come in different forms and play different roles in your life. Three of the main types of social support are emotional support, instrumental support, and informational support.

Emotional Support

Sometimes the people in your life provide emotional support. They back you up when you need it and are there with a shoulder to cry on when things don't go your way. This type of support can be particularly important during times of stress or when people are feeling lonely.

Instrumental Support

In other cases, the people in your social network might provide instrumental support. They take care of your physical needs and offer a helping hand when you need it. This might involve bringing you a hot meal when you are sick or giving you a ride when your car is in the shop. Such support is important when people have immediate needs that must be addressed.

Informational Support

People can also provide what is known as informational support. This can involve providing guidance, advice, information, and mentoring. Such support can be important when making decisions or big changes in one's life.

By having this form of support, people may feel less anxious and stressed out about the problems they are trying to solve thanks to the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or loved one.

As you might imagine, people in your social networks may take on different roles. A teacher might provide informational support, while a parent might provide all three types. By having a solid social support network, you are more likely to receive the type of support that you need when you really need it.

Examples of Social Support

Social support can occur in many forms and from many different people in your life. Co-workers may offer support in the workplace, while friends and family may provide emotional or practical support in other areas of your life.

A few examples of social support include:

  • Listening to a friend talk about a stressful situation
  • Validating another member of a support group when they talk about their feelings
  • Cooking meals for a neighbor who has been feeling ill
  • Praising an employee for doing a good job
  • Providing constructive feedback on someone's work to help them improve
  • Helping someone with housework when they are struggling with feelings of depression

Health Benefits of Social Support

So now that we understand that our social support systems involve both different types of social support as well as integration into different social groups, it is time to take a closer look at exactly how these social relationships influence both physical and mental health.

Healthy Choices and Behaviors

Participation in social groups has a normative influence on behaviors, often influencing whether people eat a healthy diet, exercise, smoke, drink, or use illegal substances.

Clearly, social groups can sometimes have a negative influence in this regard when peer pressure and influence leads to poor or even dangerous health choices. However, group pressure and support can also lead people to engage in healthy behaviors as well. 

If you have ever tried to give up a bad habit, such as smoking, you probably realize just how important social support can be. If your social connections do not support you, it can make success much more difficult. If your friends and family offer support and encouragement, you may find achieving your goal much more possible.

Coping With Stress

Social support also helps people to cope with stress. Stress has been shown to have serious health consequences ranging from reduced immunity to increased risk of heart disease.

Being surrounded by people who are caring and supportive helps people to see themselves as better capable of dealing with the stresses that life brings.

Research has also shown that having strong social support in times of crisis can help reduce the consequences of trauma-induced disorders including PTSD.

Improves Motivation

Social relationships can also help people to stay motivated when trying to achieve their goals. People who are trying to lose weight or quit smoking, for example, often find that it helps to connect with people who are actively trying to attain those same goals.

Talking to people who are going through the same experience can often be a source of support, empathy, and motivation.

A Word From Verywell

Every once in a while, it can be important to assess your relationships:

  • Do you have enough social support?
  • Would you benefit from deepening your current relationships?
  • Could you use some new social contacts or social outlets?

You might decide to get more proactive about giving and getting emotional support. It could greatly improve the quality of your life.

And if you're struggling to make friends or keep them, you might reach out to a therapist. A mental health provider may be able to assist you in managing your relationships in a healthy way so you can have the social support you need to be your best.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Manage Stress: Strengthen Your Support Network.

  2. Grav S, Hellzèn O, Romild U, Stordal E. Association between social support and depression in the general population: The HUNT study, a cross-sectional survey. J Clin Nurs. 2012;21(1-2):111-20. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2011.03868.x

  3. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D. Can we improve our physical health by altering our social networks?Perspect Psychol Sci. 2009;4(4):375–378. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01141.x

  4. Baumgartner JN, Susser E. Social integration in global mental health: What is it and how can it be measured?Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 2013;22(1):29–37. doi:10.1017/S2045796012000303

  5. Pejner MN, Ziegert K, Kihlgren A. Trying to cope with everyday life--emotional support in municipal elderly care settingInt J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2012;7:1–7. doi:10.3402/qhw.v7i0.19613

  6. Morelli SA, Lee IA, Arnn ME, Zaki J. Emotional and instrumental support provision interact to predict well-beingEmotion. 2015;15(4):484–493. doi:10.1037/emo0000084

  7. Ko HC, Wang LL, Xu YT. Understanding the different types of social support offered by audience to A-list diary-like and informative bloggersCyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2013;16(3):194–199. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0297

  8. Crookes DM, Shelton RC, Tehranifar P, et al. Social networks and social support for healthy eating among Latina breast cancer survivors: Implications for social and behavioral interventionsJ Cancer Surviv. 2016;10(2):291–301. doi:10.1007/s11764-015-0475-6

  9. Gros DF, Flanagan JC, Korte KJ, Mills AC, Brady KT, Back SE. Relations among social support, PTSD symptoms, and substance use in veteransPsychol Addict Behav. 2016;30(7):764–770. doi:10.1037/adb0000205

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."