Social support system refers to a network of people
– friends, family, and peers – that we can turn to for
emotional and practical support. At school, fellow students,
supportive staff, and faculty may provide assistance, and as we
move into our professional careers, our colleagues may also be
sources of support. Browse through the sections below to learn
more about building and sustaining your support system.
Successful relationships require give-and-take. A good rule of
thumb is to treat your friends as you want to be treated. In other
words, be the friend you want to have. Many factors contribute to
healthy, happy relationships.
Show your appreciation. Tell your friends
and family how important they are to you and thank them for all
they give you.
Stay in touch through phone calls, texts, and
emails; reciprocate invitations.
Be available when you’re needed. True
friends come through when times are tough. Be a good listener and
allow your friends to confide freely and without being judged.
Accept their help. Some people find it hard
to accept support, preferring to be the one always offering it
instead. Some may fear becoming dependent or want to maintain their
self-image as the “strong” and “together”
one. But friends and family often want to feel
they have done something for you. Let them! Accepting
help can help you. It also keeps the relationship
balanced and lets your friends and loved ones know that they have
something to offer that you value.
Support successes. When you genuinely care
about someone you will be excited when they succeed. If you find
yourself feeling a little jealous too, you can acknowledge that to
yourself, but don’t let it poison your friendship.
Keep the lines of communication open. Open,
honest communication is the lifeblood of healthy, happy
relationships. If a friend does or says something that hurts your
feelings, try to deal with it directly. Start by assuming that it
is a misunderstanding or that the misstep was unintentional, but
ask them about it. (Don’t stuff bruised feelings.) Your
friend will likely appreciate the opportunity to remedy the
situation. Whatever the case, accept apologies graciously (as you
would hope others would accept yours).
Respect needs and limits. Each person has
their own setting for how much social interaction they need and
want. Know your own and respect that of others, even it differs
Know when a relationship isn’t working for
you. If you find that you are drained whenever you see a
particular friend, or that he or she is inconsiderate of your time
or feelings, or is unreliable, highly critical of you, or generally
negative, they may not be the friend for you. Similarly, if they
engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse,
particularly if you have had trouble with such issues, they also
may not be a good choice for your social support network.
Remember, those in your support system should help you reduce
stress, not increase it. They should support your goals and efforts
to achieve them, not belittle or undermine or ignore them.
Volunteer. Identify a cause that is important to
you and get involved; commit some of your time to a community
organization or a local place of faith. Volunteering can give you
the gratification of taking action to further your values and will
bring you into contact with others who share your interests and
Take up a sport or join a gym. This is good for
your physical and psychological health and it may also provide the
opportunity to build new friendships.
Start a book club and invite some people to
join who you don’t already know well. Discussing interesting
ideas and sharing thoughts and observations is a wonderful way to
make new friends.
Meet your neighbors and co-workers. Make an
effort to get to know some of the acquaintances you see on a
Join professional organizations. Taking this
step is good not only for your future career but it will also
extend your social network to encompass others in your field.
Sometimes friends in the same profession can understand the
stresses you face better than anyone.
Use online resources. Social networking sites
can help you stay connected with friends and family. There are also
many sites that can provide specialized support if you are going
through stressful times or changing circumstances, such as becoming
a new parent, facing a life-threatening illness in a loved one, or
some other challenge. Make sure to stick with reputable sites and
use common sense about making arrangements to meet people in person
that you have only known online.
We turn to our social supports in times of need, and so they
have to be in place before we need them. Now is
the time to nurture the relationships you already have and to start
making more friends. Don’t wait! You will enjoy the benefits
now and in the future.
A social support network is different from a support
group in which people facing common issues share their
concerns on a regular basis (and which may be peer or
professionally led or free-form), though both can be very important
in times of stress. Because we think student peer support can be
especially helpful during graduate school, we hope you (if you are
a student) will consider joining (or starting) a student support
group in your school. (We have provided information on how to do
this in Tips
on Starting a Student Support or Discussion Group and the
Create a Support Group?).
Cobb, S. (1976). Social support as a moderator of
stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 35, 375-389.
Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support,
and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin,
Duck, S., Starch, D., Starch, A., & Silver, R. C.
(Eds.)(1990). Personal relationships and social
support.Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Mayo Clinic (2010). Social support: Tap this tool to
combat stress. Retrieved July 29, 2010 from
Uchino, B. N. (2004). Social support and physical
health: Understanding the consequences of relationships. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Vaux, A. (1988). Social support: Theory, research, and
intervention. New York: Praeger.
(Prepared by Lisa D. Butler, PhD)