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Buffer stress by saying connected

January 06, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Whether a person is young or old, research shows having positive connections to others benefits us at home, work and in the community. Friends, acquaintances, families and colleagues help us cope with new or challenging situations.

The types of support we need and that others provide, varies. The stress of day-to-day living can be decreased by having a network of people who provide aid and support in concrete ways, such as sharing carpooling responsibilities for children, exchanging child care or even watering plants while we're away from home. There are times when we need trusted friends or professionals to provide emotional support, and other times when those in our network will be the source of advice and new information to help with difficult decisions.

Such a variety of social needs demand a support network that is diverse. A healthy support network can be thought of as a continuum, with a few strong and enduring relationships at one end, and numerous acquaintances of a less intense nature at the other. The strong ties within our network provide many types of support - often over a period of many years - including emotional support and the understanding that comes from a shared history. Today, the Internet can be viewed as a source of support providing many with access to all types of information. Professionals or colleagues in clubs or organizations or exercise buddies are another example of less intense support.

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Too much stress can lead to health concerns such as cardiovascular problems, weakened immune systems, digestive problems, anxiety and depression. Stress at work can take the form of burnout. Youth who lack a sense of being connected to others at home and school are at higher risk for emotional distress, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts and actions and substance abuse. In all of these situations, the positive support of friends, family members and others helps us to feel cared for and valued, which aids us in mobilizing our own resources to cope well with stress. The effect is to decrease the risk of long-term negative consequences from the stressful events in our lives. This, along with other stress management tools, can serve to increase health and potentially extend our life span.

Keeping our social support network healthy can be a challenge in a culture in which we move frequently and often don't know our neighbors, in which we might be separated from extended family and time is often at a premium. Yet we also live in a time in which technology allows us many ways to stay connected through phone conversations, e-mail and even online support groups.

Preliminary research shows online support groups and sources of information can be positive supports for people who are isolated or, for example, share a common interest or medical concern. Today, many military families can stay connected with loved ones deployed overseas through secure e-mail systems. For all of us, four steps will help to build and maintain a healthy social support network:

  • Take time to nurture those strong or deep relationships through regular contact including phone or face-to-face conversations.

  • Make sure the relationship is balanced in the giving and receiving of support.

  • Beware of unhealthy supports that are oppressive, rigid or demanding. These can create more stress, rather than providing a buffer for stress.

  • Develop a broad network of acquaintances with whom you can exchange information and ideas.





Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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