Seeking Social Support

Another common way of coping with stress is to seek some form of social support. The social support sought may be informational support (e.g., an individual recently diagnosed with HIV contacting a support group to find out more about the virus), tangible support (e.g., a grieving widow asking a friend to help baby-sit her children for an afternoon), or emotional support (e.g., a recently laid-off worker accepting sympathy and understanding from a friend). In general, higher levels of social support are associated with better psychological and physical well-being. However, the quality of available social support is more important to well-being than the absolute amount of available social support. To illustrate, an individual who has a few constructively supportive friends and family members may receive better social support and experience greater health benefits than an individual who has many friends and family members but who do not provide constructive social support. In this context, constructive social support consists of support provision that meets the needs of the individual seeking such support.

In 1988, Fisher and colleagues differentiated between solicited versus unsolicited social support. There are times when members of one's social support network provide unsolicited social support. Unsolicited support tends to occur when the stressor is highly visible and there exist social norms as to how members of the social network should behave (e.g., a death in the family, loss of a child, dissolution of a marriage). However, individuals often have to cope with stressors that are not readily apparent to those around them. During such times, an individual must actively seek social support in order to receive it. Furthermore, a variety of factors seem to play a role in the extent to which individuals will seek social support as part of their coping with such stressors. For example, if individuals blame themselves for the occurrence of a stigmatizing stressor (e.g., contracting HIV after having unprotected sex), they may be less likely to seek social support because of the potential for embarrassment, stigmatization, judgment, and further blame. Given that nondisclosure of stressful experiences has been associated with threats to psychological well-being, not seeking social support may result in an increase risk for disorders of health and well-being.

Individuals may also resist seeking social support when the support available has the potential to add stress to an already stressful situation. Social support would be feared when the support provider delivers social support in an excessive or inappropriate manner. To illustrate, an individual suffering from a chronic, debilitating illness such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may avoid seeking social support if doing so threatens their independence (e.g., a support provider insists on doing everything for the individual with RA rather than simply facilitating the sufferer's own coping efforts).

In addition, individual differences have been found in both the extent to which individuals will seek social support and the degree to which they perceive seeking social support to be an effective coping strategy. For example, Thoits, in 1991, found that women engage in higher levels of support seeking than men and perceive seeking social support as a more effective coping strategy than do men. Personality differences also influence the extent to which seeking social support is an effective coping strategy. Recent research has indicated that certain personality traits may explain some of the individual differences in the seeking and receiving of social support. To illustrate, individuals high in neuroticism may tend to elicit negative reactions from others when they seek social support, whereas individuals low in neuroticism may tend to elicit positive reactions. Therefore, different individuals may seek social support to varying degrees and invoke different reactions from others depending on their particular personality and interpersonal style. This suggests that the very individuals most likely to experience threats to their psychological well-being (e.g., those high in neuroticism) and therefore most in need of social support may be those individuals least likely to seek and receive social support in a way that is beneficial to their mental health.

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