Over 200,000 years of human evolution have proven that we survive and thrive by forming and relying on the power of a close community of support. We can find community support outside the nuclear family in our modern times. We find community in churches, schools, sports teams, and more. Our innate ability to form a community as humans has led to our survival in earlier evolution and significantly added to our emotional and physical healing. That is because social support, or lack thereof, genuinely affects our health and longevity (Ozbay et al., 2007). Our health generally improves when we feel part of a community and declines when we feel isolated.
One study found that participants with greater social involvement were less likely to experience heart-related complications (Reblin & Uchino, 2008). Social support systems affect us in many ways by providing a buffer to stress.
They are a resource that enhances our coping (dare, our natural thriving) skills, and they have also been linked to the actualization of healthy behaviors such as increased fruit and vegetable consumption, exercise, and smoking cessation. This may seem like common sense. But the research dives even more profoundly to discover that the state of mind and method of support that the person giving the support utilizes also affects health outcomes. Even though our advice is well-intentioned, how we share it and how it is perceived matters.
For instance, let's peek at this study between married couples. Those spouses who engaged in genuinely supportive behaviors, i.e., merely helped or positively reinforced their spouses' efforts, had partners who experienced better mental health outcomes. This is in contrast to those spouses that exerted more controlling patterns, such as forcefully trying to change the other person.
Those folks' partners predicted worse mental health and overall health behavior. (Franks & Stephens, 2006). Therefore, social support tends to affect not only our physical health but our mental health as well. For a further example, Vietnam veterans with solid support systems were 180% less likely to experience symptoms of PTSD than those with lower levels of support (Boscarino et al., 1995). Indeed, a robust catalog of studies links social support to more favorable physical and emotional health outcomes.
Ok. So what does all this research mean to us in the real world?
These studies highlight the hope and uplifting power we can tap into through social circles. However, having access to robust social networks provides only one buffer to stress out of many pathways, and we can always experience more if we desire. If you are currently experiencing social anxiety, loneliness, or a chronic condition, I want to remind you of your innocence and worth. Please do not worry or blame yourself if things aren't going too well at the moment. That is not the purpose of this article. Plus, the truth is that studies highlight generalized information. There are outliers in every analysis.
#1. One study found that people reporting giving support (not receiving it) experienced even more positive results. And ironically, those who said providing more support ended up receiving more support (Piferi & Lawler, 2006).
#2. A study of one support group found that some of the group members experienced adverse health effects, even with self-reported positive social support and less anxiety (Cousson-Gelie et al., 2007).
The researchers speculated that the participants did not fully allow themselves to feel negative emotions. So here is the bottom line: the best thing you can do for yourself is be authentic to what you are feeling..to where you are at...and keep an open mind out for opportunities you come across to learn more about being human and the capacity for healing.
In our busy and digital world, finding a community of support is far more challenging. But we have a strong advantage over our human ancestors from over 200,000 years ago, and that advantage is the internet. It is far easier to find support services, a health care provider, therapy groups, peer support, online support groups, a step program, and other online communities that have people in similar situations. Finding individuals with similar personal experiences can help you cope with physical or mental health issues. Of course, we all hope to see the healing support we need from family members and loved ones, but peer support groups and other support services are just as effective in gaining mutual support and help. If you or someone suffers from mental health conditions, consider joining a support group.
Bonus Read: If you haven't yet, I highly recommend Anita Moorjani's book, "Dying To Be Me," which describes her miraculous healing. She also profoundly delves into what I just mentioned the art and power of living authentically and following our unique insights. No matter what circumstance you are going through, you have the wisdom to share that could benefit us all. Every person's voice matters, and we mean that. As the saying goes, "Two heads are better than one." This article shows how this can be true for survival as a human race and your individual and emotional healing.