Social Support: How To Find It, Keep It And Benefit From It
Having a strong social support network is good for your health. And conversely, not having one can be detrimental to both your physical and mental health.
Health experts note that having a social support system is even more important now, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The need is especially acute for nurses and healthcare professionals, many of whom are working under a heavier-than-usual burden of stress.
For one thing, having a strong support system can help you cope with the emotions that deplete your energy. “Social support is a mechanism through which we experience the replenishing experiences like trust, hope, contentment, humor, happiness and joy, to name a few,” says Karen Wade, PhD, RN-BC, author of the new book Career Clarity for Nurses: Navigating Nursing Through Challenging Times.
“We Need Each Other”
Social support matters for everyone. Every individual needs other people whom they can count on for help and encouragement.
“Social support is an important part of a healthy balanced life,” says Aaron Weiner, PhD, a clinical psychologist and addiction counselor. “Even if you consider yourself introverted, chances are there are still some relationships you value and cherish.”
“No person is an island,” notes Wade. “It is the rare individual who can succeed in life alone, without needing assistance and support from other people.”
In fact, the title of a recent column in Social Anthropology says it all: “We need each other: Social supports during COVID-19.” In it, author Gerald Patrick McKinley describes the stress that he and his mother have experienced as she received cancer treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic without access to their regular full social support networks.
Another recent study also highlighted the risks of loneliness. Published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, the study assessed nearly 4,000 people in Spain for the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness, as it turns out, was the biggest predictor for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
Knowing you have a group of friends or family who have your back in a difficult time has a positive impact on your ability to cope with stress, regardless of whether you reach out to them or not, notes Weiner.
“Particularly in this time of social distancing and increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19, keeping friendships active over distance and being confident in perceived support is a critical ingredient to feeling centered and stable in your emotional health,” he says.
How Strong is Your Existing Social Support System?
“Evaluate your current support system. What is working and what is not?” says Tonya Hansel, PhD, associate professor of social work at Tulane University. “Also evaluate not only what you are receiving from your support system but what are you providing? This should be in balance for a healthy support system.”
Once you’ve assessed your support network, you can figure out where you may need to shore things up.
For example, you might realize you need to make more of an effort to reach out to friends and family on a regular basis. And you may need to figure out which format is best for contacting them: a phone call, a text message, videoconferencing, in-person visits, etc. You may find that one friend responds to one mode of connection while another prefers something different.
It may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Scheduling regular times to get together—for coffee, for dinner, for a walk—can also help, so you’ll already have these social appointments on your calendar
Away From Home? Developing Primary and Secondary Support Systems
Even in non-pandemic times, the distance factor can be challenging for travel nurses when they’re away from home, working on assignment. Unless you bring a spouse or a fellow traveler with you, you’re literally miles away from the people in your social support network.
Wade worked as a travel nurse for many years, and she had two approaches toward building and maintaining a strong social support system. First, she would sometimes take travel assignments just a few hours away from home, so she could drive home when she had two or more days off in a row. But when she worked farther away from home, she put special effort into developing new relationships in her new community.
You, too, can develop what Wade calls a “supplemental support network” when you’re away from your primary support network. This might include connecting with fellow travel nurses, or it could be connecting with a local runners’ group, a fitness studio, a religious congregation or even a book club.
Building A Stronger Support Network During Pandemic Times
When you’re feeling burned out or exhausted, it’s too easy to withdraw from others, warns Mara Maeglin, MSW, LCSW, owner of Mara Maeglin Therapy and Wellness in Denver.
“However, it is important to stay connected to others outside work and to utilize your support system,” she emphasizes.
Of course, it’s not as easy to connect with people when social distancing is the order of the day. You can always pick up the telephone, but there are other ways to maintain those connections.
“The short answer is you have to get creative finding ways to meet your social connection needs,” says Maeglin.
- Schedule a weekly Zoom, Skype or video call with loved ones
- Start a group text or Messenger conversation
- Plan a socially distanced gathering in a backyard or park
- Coordinate a socially distanced game night or happy hour
- Go on a hike or bike ride with a friend
You can also turn to the Internet. Visit an online community, forum, or support group to connect with other nurses, suggests Wade, so you can share your work-related frustrations and get encouragement from people who really understand your situation.