When times are tough, who do you reach out to? Friends, family, coworkers, community members, and healthcare providers like therapists are all good people to have in your support system. When you need support, who do you typically turn to?
General changes as we go through life stages, the increasing digitization of communication, and the past few years of physical distancing might all have an impact on the size and strength of your support network—which in turn has an impact on your mental health.
So what is a support system, why is it important, and how can you build your support system so you have a network of people you can trust to care for you in a time of need?
A support system is a group of people who provide you with support when you need it most. This can be mental, emotional, and or practical, such as with finances, childcare, etc. They are also there when things are going well to sustain you and keep you going.
Having people to support you does not make you weak! Having a strong social support network actually makes you more capable of problem solving on your own and being resilient because a support system nurtures your autonomy, confidence, and self-esteem.
Strained social relationships and reduced social support during the past few years of pandemic living have made coping with stress more difficult. More than half of respondents in the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America survey said that they could have used more emotional support than they received since the pandemic started.
Loneliness has been associated with a wide variety of health problems including high blood pressure, diminished immunity, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline. In fact, low levels of social support have even been linked to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, and cancer.
Support systems are shown to reduce stress, physical health problems, and improve emotional wellbeing, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and resiliency.
Taking stock of your social support system is an excellent way to assess where your help comes from and who provides it. Taking stock can also help you see reasons why you don’t ask for or accept assistance, and reasons why people may not offer assistance.
People in your support system should care for you, show you compassion, love you, be there for you, and be stable. And you should do the same for them—relationships are a two-way street.
While building a support system of other people is vital for our wellbeing, how you support yourself is also important. Practicing self-care, building a strong set of coping mechanisms, and setting boundaries are all ways to support yourself.
If you’ve taken stock of your support system and you’ve decided it can use a little maintenance and growth, here are some things you can try:
Consider your expectations from a support system. Do you need a more supportive professional network? Do you need a collection of friends who are there when you need them? Do you need to talk to a healthcare professional about your mental health?
Friends are important and so is family, but not everyone has a supportive family and those are only two buckets of people. Casting a wider net means that, depending on your needs, there a higher likelihood of you knowing someone who would have the skills and capacity to support you. The more varied your resources, the better.
So often, people wait for others to reach out and then feel hurt and rejected when no one does. It’s scary, but letting people know they are in your support system and letting them know how they can support you will set them up for success and make them more likely to be able to support you in the ways that you need.
And be there for others in return; studies have shown that providing social support to others may be even more beneficial than receiving it.
Again, friends, family, and coworkers are all obvious individuals who could be in our support network, but there are plenty of places to look to build your thriving network.
Are there people you know who you would like to know better? Start reaching out and strengthening these relationships. Even if they aren’t local to you, you can set up virtual connections. Try to make reaching out a habit, such as setting aside a certain hour a week that you’ll use to nurture your network, in order to make it easier to sustain.
Whether you like rock climbing or relaxing at the park, there are other people who share your interests. Sharing passions is an excellent way to find folks who can support you and who you can support right back. It can be scary to meet new people, but remember: if you’re nervous, so are they.
Things like exercise classes are relatively low barrier-to-entry, local book clubs are a great way to meet like-minded bookworms, neighbors in your building or neighborhood might enjoy the same local shops or activities as you, and volunteering can match you up with people who support the same causes or have the same values as you.
These days especially, online relationships are just as important as relationships IRL. Expanding your support network to friends that you meet online can vastly widen your pool of potential candidates, plus you can meet people who are going through something similar, which people in our immediate circles might not always understand, such as experiencing an illness or stepping into an identity.
Your therapist is not your friend or family member and has an unbiased opinion of what you’re going through, which makes them a great member of your support network. They can give you support, feedback, and a sense of perspective that you might not get from others.
Your support network doesn’t have to be super wide, but the relationships should be deep; these are folks you can count on through the good times and the bad. And they should be able to count on you as well!
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.