SOCIAL SUPPORT: SUPPORT OR A MENACE?
Numerous studies have indicated the importance of social support in both physical and mental health. However, it is also the one that is most overlooked. The fact that social support is good is unmistakable and is something we innately know. So I find myself wondering about how many of us find ourselves alone in the midst of a problem with no one to understand it.
When did dealing with things alone become the new ‘strong’ and when did weathering the storm include only one person? In my practice, I have found numerous clients who have weathered the storms alone in the hope that one day they would be strong enough to take on whatever life throws at them.
Well-meaning friends may ask if something is wrong but we reply nonchalantly that everything is fine. Isn’t it more courageous to say ‘Yes I’m scared and I don’t know if I can handle this’ ? For most people the first time this happens is when they open themselves to actually being able to receiving support that people around us can provide.
Social support can be defined as ‘a network of family, friends, neighbours, and community members that is available in times of need to give psychological, physical, and financial help’.
Theoretical models of social support specify the following two important dimensions:
- A structural dimension, which includes network size and frequency of social interactions, and
- A functional dimension with emotional (such as receiving love and empathy) and instrumental (practical help such as gifts of money or assistance with child care) components.
Most research has found that quality of relationships (functional dimension) is a better predictor of good health than quantity of relationships (structural dimension), although both are important. So next time when you think of relocating or changing your work place, don’t just think about the logistics, but also think about your access to social support and how easily you will be able to make new connections there.
Traditionally, in our country, festivals, weddings, funerals etc. had rituals surrounding it that made it possible for all people attending to give and receive social support. Currently, however, we seem to following these rituals but have forgotten the very essence of what they used to be.
The reason I stress on this is because festivals are a time when I see many of my clients relapsing into older behavior patterns.
One of the reasons is that these celebrations put pressure on people to conform to a stereotypical traditional ideal and we may find ourselves caring too much about the approval of others and putting on a brave front. This takes a toll and is sometimes the reason for the physical and mental fatigue that we find ourselves in at the end of a festival or celebration.
The second reason is related to something called an ‘anniversary reaction’. Celebrations are also times that are imprinted in our memory because they have been long and significant enough to become a memory. People who have lost their dear one find it especially difficult during times of celebrations, because they will have shared memories with the deceased during this time. Many of us may have trauma memories related to anniversaries or festivals and find ourselves especially susceptible to depression or anxiety during that time every year. We can deal with this by pre-empting this time and making sure we are well supported during this time. It is also a good practise to notice if there are times of the year when you feel especially low without much cause. This will help in tracing back and finding out what is causing you to feel this way in the first place.
From a neurobiological perspective, the social engagement system shuts down in response to the threat response system in the brain getting activated. When we are bogged down by problems and if we let it over whelm us then the fight/flight/freeze system gets activated. The problem solving done by this part of the brain, though quick, is sometimes very narrow and makes us feel that we have no other choice. On the other hand, if we are surrounded by people that make us feel safe and not judged then when we are having problems in our life we may cope by actively seeking to make connections with people around and we may be able to solve problems in the most creative way possible and the choice of solutions are endless.
Now the question is – how do we activate this system?
The answer is to just use the social engagement system more in your everyday life by seeking out connections deliberately and frequently. This not only causes that area of your brain to function more effectively but also to prune the neuronal connections available to the threat response system of the brain.
So this festive season, lets endeavour to light up parts of us that have been in the dark for too long and make enduring connections so that we can bring back the meaning to our celebrations.
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