Social Support and Stress: Emotional vs. Instrumental Support

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  • 0:06 What Is Social Support?
  • 2:00 Benefits of Social Support
  • 2:47 Buffering Hypothesis
  • 4:08 Main Effects Hypothesis
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Social support is an important tool for coping with stress. There are two main and contradicting hypotheses about the role of social support in stressful situations: the buffering hypothesis and the main effects hypothesis. In this lesson, we'll learn more about social support and its effects on stress.

What Is Social Support?

Imagine that you've just found out some very stressful news. What do you do? Do you run for that tub of ice cream in your freezer? Do you head for the gym and the punching bag? Do you call a friend to come over and talk it out with you?

Everyone faces stress at some point in their lives. There are many negative health effects of too much stress, including a weakened immune system and heart disease. As a result, finding a way to cope with stress is an important topic to many people. Psychologists have done extensive research on coping with stress, and what they've found is that one of the best ways to cope is through seeking and receiving social support. In other words, of those options above, your best bet is to call a friend to come over.

Social support is defined as the belief that others understand your needs and will try to help you. You can find social support in a number of different places: through friends and family, through clubs or even through support groups. There are two main types of social support.

Emotional support involves acting as a confidant for someone. For example, you might offer emotional support to someone by listening and offering sympathy after they've had bad news. Instrumental support is offering help or assistance in a tangible and/or physical way, such as providing money to someone who's lost their job or helping someone who's bedridden by preparing dinner. Both emotional and instrumental support are important.

While there's a lot of research on the effects of social support on stress, there is some disagreement on whether people need social support all the time or just during times of stress. Let's look closer at some of the benefits of social support and at two major theories around social support: the buffering hypothesis and the main effects hypothesis.

Benefits of Social Support

Research has shown that social support can make a huge difference in people's lives during stressful times. One study showed that cancer patients with a strong support group not only felt less stressed and upset during treatment, but actually lived an average of 18 months longer!

There are two ways that social support can help people. First, it helps people interpret events in a more positive light. Anyone who has a friend who can make them laugh at the toughest of times understands how helpful this can be! The other way that social support can help people is through helping them identify ways to cope. If you're going through a tough time and know someone who has already gone through the same process, they can help you through it. In turn, you'll be able to help others through that same thing in the future.

Buffering Hypothesis

Obviously, social support can help tremendously during stressful times. But, do people always need social support or only during times of stress? There is some disagreement on that, and research is still ongoing. On one hand, the buffering hypothesis says that social support is mostly beneficial during stressful times. The idea behind it is the fact that social support buffers, or protects, people from the negative effects of stress. If you're not under a lot of stress, you don't need the buffer of social support.

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