by Sean Szeles, LPC
When someone starts therapy, my initial question is often, “who do you turn to for support?” There’s a reason social history is listed on most mental health intake forms. Social support is linked to better mental health outcomes, greater trauma resilience, and lowered risk of early death.
For better or worse, the people around us inevitably shape how we see the world, influencing what we perceive as normal or possible. Research from Yale University suggests that, if a friend gains weight, you are more likely to gain weight. Similarly, studies have demonstrated that back pain and suicidality can also spread through “social contagion”. Without our awareness, social influence can amplify the adversity that we face.
Luckily, this can also work to our advantage. Healthy relationships are one of the best predictors of well-being. In fact, our social connections tend to be more influential and rewarding to us than physical items of value. To illustrate, one study found that getting a $10,000 raise is less likely to make you happy compared to having a friend who is happy. The bottom line: many of the positives and negatives in our lives can be linked to our relationships.
Healthy support networks are not always naturally-occurring. Instead, the bonds that hold and stabilize us often are developed and cultivated through a variety of experiences throughout our lives. For those who have their opportunities for positive social interaction inhibited, developing positive social supports may be a daunting task. In particular, people who have experienced childhood trauma tend to receive significantly less support than those without a trauma history. Building and maintaining support is often a skill that needs to be learned.
If you or a client is looking to build social supports, here are some tips.
Know what you need. Are you in need of emotional support? Professional support? Parenting advice? You may have a friend or family member who is able to help you when it comes to babysitting, but isn’t exactly available for the emotional support you need after a long day at work. Consider the type of support that you need and seek it out intentionally.
Diversify your support system. I often encourage clients to use a relationship scale (1-10) to assess the level of time, energy, and trust they put into a relationship, with 1 indicating "very little" and 10 indicating "very much". Not everyone in your support system needs to be a 10. It may help to have a broad range of support, that comes in different flavors and styles. Maybe some people in your outer circle are social friends or friends who share an interest. We need 3’s and 4’s alongside our 10’s.
Be intentional. I often encourage clients to create a routine to provide a degree of structure to a relationship. Maybe it’s a regular Sunday phone check-in, or a monthly coffee date. Knowing that you have something to count on can build stability, trust, and depth in a relationship.
Reinforce existing support. Are you leaning on the support that you already have? Are you asking for help when you need it? Sometimes we forget to reach for the low hanging fruit, like that cousin with whom you’ve been meaning to catch up or an old coworker you’ve been meaning to meet for lunch.
Lastly, consider that support systems are constantly evolving. Friends and family members may grow out of the roles that they play in your life, and you may outgrow the role you play in another person’s life. That’s okay. If we’re growing and changing, our relationships will grow along with us. That’s the goal.