When Social Support Creates More (Not Less) Stress

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For many people, nothing beats a validating ear and a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough. Just the act of telling a supportive friend about what's really stressing you can make problems seem more manageable, and can make you feel less alone in dealing with them. If a friend is particularly good at listening and validating, they usually don't even need to offer advice, as the act of feeling heard and understood often helps us get to a point of greater peace where we can access our own wisdom and resources and come up with our own best solutions. For this and other reasons, good friends can make all the difference.

Social support has been shown by numerous research studies to be a great remedy for stress and is correlated with positive health outcomes, making it a great stress reliever.

The stress-relieving effects of social support, however, can be diminished by hostility. You may already know this intuitively: when you talk to a friend about something that's bothering you and that friend responds with sarcasm or passive-aggressive hostility, you feel worse rather than better. Not only are you still upset about what was stressing you, but you may now also feel hurt by your friend's lack of empathy, you may doubt your own feelings and inner strength, or both. For this reason, we all tend to learn who we can and can't go to with our problems. Interesting research from Brigham Young University confirms this, finding that, in situations where people were discussing with a friend the negative events that caused them stress, those participants who scored high in hostility (including cynicism and mistrust) had elevated blood pressure compared to the non-hostile participants. This held true both for those giving social support and those receiving it. You may not have realized it, but in avoiding hostile friends when seeking support, you are saving stress for both of you.

Other research has found that marriages where partners validate each other and share responsibilities are the happiest. 

This makes sense--we spend so much time with our spouses over a lifetime that if you have a partner who shoulders the same burdens you face, it means you both understand how much work you both do; if you have a spouse who is able to support you through stressful times, you both feel less stressed and more at ease as a result, and that means less stress overall. And more good news: these marriages also tend to last. Fortunately, this type of marriage is the most common (a little over half of marriages contain this dynamic), and the support found in these marriages can really relieve stress. 

Another study found that the type of listening and emotional support offered could make the difference between more stress and less. For example, if partners went on to offer too much advice, especially if it was unsolicited advice, it created more stress than it relieved. This may seem counterintuitive to a partner who only wants to help minimize the stress by fixing the problem at its root; the problem, however, is twofold: when advice is offered, it is a subtle indication that the "advisor" believes that the "advisee" cannot come up with their own solutions. Also, the solutions the advisor comes up with may not fit the situation well enough, and this may create stress from both sides as the advice-giver may feel undervalued and the recipient may feel frustrated. Finally, frustration can result for the partner who really just wanted emotional support so they could get to a place where they felt validated and empowered to find their own solutions, but was then faced with another conflict.

Conversely, it is impossible to receive too much "esteem support," as long as it is genuine. It is more common to receive too little support than to receive too much, but receiving the right type of support is also important, and it doesn't always happen. 

Knowing what type of support to give is vital. And when you give the best type of support in your relationships, you tend to receive it as well. Relationships in which people feel supported and validated tend to have a strong buffering effect against stress.

This highlights not only the importance of having good listening skills--being a poor listener can actually make a loved one who's baring their soul feel worse rather than better--but of working hard to foster strong, trusting relationships with the people who are close to us, so we can give and receive social support in ways that are good for everyone. Avoiding conflict is better than engaging in hostile, volatile communication, but it's far healthier and more beneficial to learn healthy communication strategies, be altruistic with one's partner, and work at maintaining relationships in a fun and healthy way. The following are some resources that can help.

Relationship Resources from Elizabeth Scott:

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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.