Addiction Recovery and Social Support

What is social support?

There is no clear definition for the term ‘social support’ but a broad definition might refer to the extent to which a person has people around him/her that give support in one way or another. This support could be financial, emotional, companionship, or advisory (Brannon & Feist, 2004, p 188).

Another form of support could be measured in terms of its structural function (Wills, as cited in Brannon & Feist, 2004, p 188) whereby a person provides access to a broader network of people or otherwise contributes to forming the structure of the social network around the individual.

Linking social support to health

There is a generally agreed upon positive correlation between social support and health.

A happy marriage provides excellent social support for both partners, but men benefit more than women for reasons that are not fully understood. Brannon and Feist (2004, p 189) hypothesize that this could be due to women having stronger physiological reactions to stress caused by marital conflict than men do. Women are also placed in the role of caregiver which implies that they are expected to receive less care than other members of the family.

Women seem to gain more from the social support of their peers than do men when they have a moderate number of peers. If they have either a great many or very few peers then they lose their advantage. Brannon and Feist (2004, p 190) hypothesize that this could be because the demands made by a large peer group overstretch them.

A brief exploratory literature survey did not reveal appropriate South African studies to demonstrate the effect on the health of ethnicity. I strongly suspect that given the radically disparate access to healthcare any such study would reflect that the race groups disadvantaged by Apartheid would be expected to show considerably higher mortality and rates of sickness than the privileged groups. This is, of course, pure speculation.

Contribution of social support to health

Social support has several vectors by which it is hypothesized to influence health.

Firstly a social support network will apply pressure on an individual to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviours such as to exercise and stopping smoking. Similarly, a social support network will provide advice and spur an individual to take proactive behaviour in times of illness. This influence need not always be positive and it is possible for people to provide wrong advice to the individual.

A second method is through a person’s appraisal of a situation and their perception of his/her ability to cope with it. Wills found that individuals with a high level of social support perceived stressors as being less threatening than those with less support. Furthermore having a network of people provides individuals with more sources of knowledge and experience about coping strategies as well as information pertaining to the problem.

Finally, the buffering hypothesis holds that having social support alters the physiological response to stress. We have already seen that emotional disclosure has positive effects on health and having a good social support network will increase the individual’s opportunities to do so.

Mobilizing social support

The quality of a social support network cannot be increased simply by making more social contacts. According to the view of Wills which we looked at earlier this would improve only the structural quality of the network. The personality style of the individual could moderate the effect of increasing the number of social contacts, and hence the functional quality of the network. For example, a naturally hostile person benefits less from social support than does a less hostile person.

This is further evidenced by the fact that women receive more benefits from their social networks than do men. Their friendship style is generally more open to sharing emotions, cooperating, and giving positive nonverbal signals. It follows that having these friendship styles is an aid to mobilizing a social support network.

Gottlieb identifies two strategies for improving a social support network. The first of which is to become more self-disclosing and supportive of others and thereby improve upon the existing network. The second strategy is to join a support group – which is intrinsically a network of people who share a common problem and meet together to help each other. There are many different support groups offering help with many diverse problems. An example of such a group could be Alcoholics Anonymous, which has a presence in South Africa.

Brannon, L. & Feist, J. (2004). The meaning of pain, pp 161-184, Personal resources that influence coping, pp 187-213 and Risk factors in cardiovascular disease, pp 229-246 from Health Psychology. An Introduction to Behaviour and Health (with Info Trac), 5th edition. In Grieves, K.W., Papaikonomou, M., & Henderson, H.L. (Eds.). (2004). Physiological Psychology: Reader for PSY485-Y, Pretoria: University of South Africa.


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