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Social support: Breaking down the why, the what, and the how

November 23, 2021
By: Dr. Amber Labow, Clinical Psychologist

The Why

In sessions, I often hear the need to be supported expressed by clients. Understandably so, the current literature highlights the importance of social support as fundamental when we are faced with challenging and stressful moments in our lives. Social support plays a monumental role in creating, maintaining, and promoting health. In fact, we know from the literature that it is a protective factor against several physical and psychological health problems. One hypothesis suggests that when we perceive that we have adequate social support, there is a decrease in the importance we actually attribute to the stressful event in the first place, which in turn would limit a maladaptive emotional response that could follow. So, in a sense social support may act as a buffer between the stressful situation and our possible maladaptive emotional, physiological, and behavioural responses, which might lead to the onset of an illness (2). Conversely, a link has been established between fewer social support resources and increased morbidity (5), depression (4), anxiety (9), and cardiovascular disease (1) has been demonstrated in the literature.

With the on-going global pandemic and the sanitary measures that were implemented, it is no surprise that…. well, we have all spent some time in isolation. We have gone on for extended periods separated from family, friends, loved ones, not to mention without the distractions of our regular activities, hobbies and travel…and that only scratches the surface! Friends and family are often considered part of a person’s social network and have essential qualities like being available, trustworthy, and reliable (3). Isolation impacts everyone differently – for some it has been devastating while others have sought solace in online forms of communication in lieu of in person interactions. Perceived social support has actually been shown to be protective against COVID-19 Anxiety (9).

The What

What is social support anyways?

“A well-intentioned action that is given willingly to a person with whom there is a personal relationship and that produces an immediate or delayed positive response in the recipient” (6, p. 313)

We can break it down even further – here are some of the most common types of social support:

Emotional support – This often takes the form of listening, communicating, offering words of encouragement (3). Emotional support is about empathy, knowing there is someone there to listen and care for you when are having a hard time and need a shoulder to cry on.

Instrumental support – This consists of offering tangible goods or help to another person, like providing food, transportation, money, shelter, or even a hot meal for example (8).

Informational support – This can be seen as guidance, advice, information, and/or mentoring.

Esteem support – Here, we are typically looking for validation of one’s perspective or opinion. Esteem support helps with the promotion of one’s sense of self, skills, and abilities (7). 

Take a moment to think about your social support needs. Do any of these various types of support resonate? If so, which ones? Let’s be aware of what works best for us, so that we can get a better understanding of where we might want to strengthen an area of support we feel might be lacking in our lives. 

The How

Tips on cultivating social support:

  • Connect with your social network, reach out! Stay in touch with those who are close to you. Call, email, text, reciprocate invitations to spend time together.
  • Recognize the people in your life that offer you support. Different people may provide different kinds of support. It might be challenging to have all your social support needs met by one person only.
  • Be aware of the needs of those in your social network. Notice when someone’s needs are lacking. Offer support to others – be a good listener, validate, provide guidance, or even tangible goods when needed.
  • Be assertive about the type of support you need from your network – think about your emotional, instrumental, informational, and esteem needs! What does it mean to communicate assertively? Check out this blog to know all about it: Choose Yourself While Respecting Others: The Whys And Hows Of Assertiveness

If you notice your social support needs are unmet, consider expanding your network:

  1. Brummett Beverly H, Barefoot John C, Siegler Ilene C, Clapp-Channing Nancy E, Lytle Barbara L, Bosworth Hayden B, Williams Redford B, Mark Daniel B. Characteristics of Socially Isolated Patients with Coronary Artery Disease Who Are at Elevated Risk for Mortality. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2001;63:267–72.
  2. Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological bulletin, 98(2), 310.
  3. Finfgeld‐Connett, D. (2005). Clarification of social support. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 37(1), 4-9.
  4. Gordon, W. A., Cantor, J., Dams-O’Connor, K., Tsaousides, T., Grafman, J., & Salazar, A. (2015). Long-term social integration and community support. Handbook of clinical neurology: Traumatic brain injury (Part I), 423-431.
  5. House, J. S., Umberson, D., & Landis, K. R. (1988). Structures and processes of social support. Annual review of sociology, 14(1), 293-318.
  6. Hupcey, J. E. (1998). Social support: Assessing conceptual coherence. Qualitative Health Research, 8(3), 304-318.
  7. Ko, H-C., W. L-L., Xu, Y-T. (2013). Understanding the Different Types of Social Support Offered by Audience to A-List Diary-Like and Informative Bloggers. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 16(3): 194-199.
  8. Semmer, N. K., Elfering, A., Jacobshagen, N., Perrot, T., Beehr, T. A., & Boos, N. (2008). The emotional meaning of instrumental social support. International Journal of Stress Management, 15(3), 235.
  9. Xu J, Ou J, Luo S, Wang Z, Chang E, Novak C, Shen J, Zheng S and Wang Y (2020) Perceived Social Support Protects Lonely People Against COVID-19 Anxiety: A Three-Wave Longitudinal Study in China.  Psychol.11:566965. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.566965



About the author

Amber Labow completed her doctorate in psychology at Laval University, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.