Social Support Protects You From Daily Stress, but Who You Are Matters More
When I moved from Germany to the U.S. to do post-PhD research, my social network was limited to my partner, who kindly crossed the Atlantic with me. Moving thousands of miles away from most significant others in my life during a period of transition and professional challenge put me in a vulnerable position. The beneficial effects of my supportive relationships were less accessible when all I had were texts, calls, or sporadic mail. A few weeks in, during one of the rare in-person events before the pandemic, I talked to one of my new colleagues about settling in. I explained that I had enrolled in an arts class to connect to others and, possibly, make friends. “And did you find anyone?” she asked. I hadn’t, yet. I was determined to forge new connections, to surround myself with caring others, but I also started to wonder how much of this really depended on my conscious choices.
Social Support Shapes the Ways We Think, Feel, and Behave
This recognition is rooted in Émile Durkheim’s (1897) work on suicides which, he argued, are more prevalent among individuals with fewer social ties. Interest in the relationship between social support and psychological outcomes, such as stress, was revived by epidemiological studies in the 1970s and 80s. Since then, the positive link between social support and well-being has been confirmed many times. Some authors believe that the effects of social relationships on stress resistance are comparable to those observed for established risk factors like smoking and alcohol consumption.
The power that social relationships seem to have over our well-being is impressive. How is it possible that the presence of caring others minimizes our mortality risk in ways only achieved by a balanced lifestyle? The answer to this question is less straightforward than you might think.
Personality Also Matters
One thing that obscures clear-cut conclusions in this domain is that the unique effects of social support on health are difficult to disentangle from our personalities. People likely select themselves into environments that match the ways they tend to think, feel, and behave. Thus, as much as a general disposition itself affects our social relationships, any link between social support and stress is likely to be a product of our personality. But the question whether the protective effects of social support could instead be viewed as due to our personalities has rarely been discussed.
In our study we revisited the claim that the experience and management of stress is to great extent determined by social interaction. We based our analyses on fine-grained data of stress experiences in daily life, collected from 391 participants multiple times per day for two 2-day periods. We asked them to report on things that caused daily stress related to task demand (for example whether the task required working hard, fast, or juggling several tasks at once) and social conflicts—as well as how stressed they felt in response. We then examined the separate and joint impacts of social support and personality, which we measured with standard questionnaires.
On its own, social support decreased the probability of experiencing stress. However, both social support and personality mattered to the likelihood of stress. Hence, when considered in isolation, both social support and personality each independently contributed to the prediction of stress experiences in our participants’ daily lives.
But examining personality and social support together yielded another discovery. It is already well known that being more neurotic and being less extraverted are correlated with being more stress prone. What we found is that having social support did not add any extra protection from stress if the person was high on these traits.
Around the time I was packing for my move back to Europe, I realized how difficult it was for me to leave Pittsburgh. Over the past two years, I had become part of a supportive and compassionate network of friends with whom lockdown and isolation became a communal and manageable experience. I often think of a conversation I had with one of my very close friends over the phone, sharing how I felt about the move. “You can feel comfortable wherever you end up,” she said. It took some time, but she was right.
Of course, because our results are based on correlations, we cannot say beyond doubt that personality is a stronger determinant of stress than, say, friendships or marriage. But we can say that emotionally stable people are better at stress management and that this matters more than the simple fact of social support. The patterns we found are sufficiently strong and pervasive to justify more research that tries to get at the causes and mechanisms of a person’s likelihood to have stress reactions in their daily lives.
For Further Reading
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS med, 7(7), e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Kaurin, A., Wright, A. G., & Kamarck, T. (in press). Daily stress reactivity: The unique roles of personality and social context. Journal of Personality. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12633
Wills, T. A., & Shinar, O. (2000). Measuring perceived and received social support. In S. Cohen, L. G. Underwood, & B. H. Gottlieb (Eds.), Social support measurement and intervention: A guide for health and social scientists (p. 86–135). Oxford University Press.
Aleksa Kaurin is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychology at Witten/Herdecke University in Germany. She studies how close relationships affect the ways we cope with stressful events and how these processes are impacted by individual differences and psychopathology throughout development.