By Marty Seitz
When I teach stress management, I am often asked, “If you could recommend only one resource for coping with stress, what would it be?”
There are so many coping resources that I am always hesitant to mention just one. In fact, perhaps the most hope-inspiring thought is just how many resources are available to help persons cope with the stressful situations in their lives.
One of the books I use in my university course on stress management,The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook (Davis, Eshelman & McKay, 2008), has 21 chapters, each devoted to a different category of coping resources, such as relaxation, exercise, assertiveness training and time management.
But research has shown that the most impactful, most helpful resource for coping with stress is other people who are supportive. One stress management specialist, psychologist Shelley E. Taylore in her book, The Tending Instinct, says, “Social ties are the cheapest medicine we have” (2002). In other words, the most stress-resistant people have good social support systems. That’s why I’d like to introduce you to the whole range of options available for increasing and building a strong social support system.
Supportive social networks
By definition, those who make up a support system must be supportive. Simply having a lot of family members and/or friends does not necessarily mean those people are supportive. Sometimes the biggest sources of stress are other people—people who are critical or have unrealistic expectations or take more than they give. People can be toxic as well as tonic, so for one’s social network to be supportive requires that the people in that network be willing and able to give of themselves at times and in different ways. Not everyone can give aid all the time or in every way. Some may be able to help out financially in an emergency, while others may be able to babysit, mow the law or provide a meal. The key is that we all need other people on whom we can depend for help at times.
Walking through life can be like walking a tightrope, and having a network of supportive people is like having a net to catch you if you fall. It gives you confidence, so you are less likely to fall off the tightrope in the first place. But if you do fall, the net keeps you from being as seriously injured as you would be if you had no net at all. The broader, more reinforced and nearer the net, the less the danger of serious injury from a fall.
A number of different options can help construct a good social support NETwork. Family is a natural place to look first for support if a person has supportive family members. But these days, families are often spread apart geographically, so while family may be supportive, they may not be near enough to be of practical help for some problems. Sometimes I remind people of the total extent of their family, which can include both biological and adoptive members, family of origin (in which you grew up), family in place (those currently living in your household), as well as in-laws and out-laws.
Friends are another source of support. We all need at least one good friend, someone in whom we can confide and with whom we can share. Books I recommend to assist people in making and keeping friends are The Friendship Factor (McGinnis, 2004), How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie, 2009), How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age (Carnegie & Associates, 2012), and How to Make Friends and Meet People (Furlow, 2012).
Sometimes, people have friends and/or family who could and would support them, but they are reluctant or unwilling to ask for help. To me, having an available set of resources that you aren’t willing to draw upon is like having money in the bank, having bills to pay, but being unwilling to use the money to pay the bills. Often family and friends want and like to be of assistance, so why deprive others of the opportunity to do something helpful for someone else just because the someone else is you?
People are so mobile today that individuals may find themselves moving to new places where they have no family or friends. Yes, family and friends can offer support from a distance, remotely, but for in-person help, you may need to look at additional sources of social support.
My father was a pastor, and I remember him telling me that when the church or churches he was serving were in more rural areas, he had little demand for pastoral counseling, but when he was serving a church or churches in large cities, he was often flooded with people asking for pastoral care and counseling. He said people in the rural areas tended to have family and/or friends around them from whom they sought counsel, but people often had no family or friends nearby when they first moved to a large city.
Pastors or other religious leaders may be good sources of social support. In fact, many people look for a new church home and church family early on after a move as one way of establishing an instant social support network. Sometimes professional counselors are seen as the secular alternatives to religious confessors and counselors, though the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Professional counselors often can be sources of confidential and concentrated social support.
Mutual aid/self-help groups
As a professional counselor, one of the first things I try to assess is the condition of my clients’ social support systems, and if lacking, one of the first things I often recommend is some sort of mutual-help/self-help group. Such groups are not the same as therapy groups because professional therapists don’t lead them. Members of the group lead it, peers—people who share the same problem or experience.
These groups are also voluntary and nonprofit. Almost any problem you can imagine, from learning how to cope with a specific medical or mental health condition to helping people cope with commonly occurring situations such as the death of a loved one, have at least one nationally networked group or self-help organization. I often refer people to the Self-Help Group Sourcebook Online, which advertises as a guide to finding “every type of national, international, model and online self-help group that is available.” Mutual-aid, mutual-help, self-help groups can be found locally as in-person groups or as online groups.
The collected wisdom of other people put into written form for the express purpose of being supportive is what self-help literature is all about. When you read what other people say about how to cope with a problem, you are getting their support. Their social support is in print rather than in person. We professional counselors call recommended self-help reading bibliotherapy.
Similarly, other forms of media can be means of social support—movies, DVDs, CDs, computer assisted instruction, etc. See the book Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning (Hesley & Hesley, 2001) for movies that provide cinematic social support. Journaling is a traditional means of real self-help. Writing down one’s own experiences, thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions has been proven to be therapeutic. In fact, we therapists have a fancy new terms for journaling that reflects its scientifically validated positive effects — scriptotherapy. Face it, we all have many voices inside us—voices of others that we can recall and voices for each of the roles we have had in life. We can access the supportive parts of ourselves and see what each has to say to us. We can read and listen to our own self-talk.
Animals are people, too
As many of my students who are studying equine-assisted mental health like to remind me, horses (I broaden here to animals) are people, too. Having a pet is commonly known to be therapeutic. Pets/animals can be a type of social support. I know some people who believe pets are better company than humans. I won’t argue that point here, but I do believe animals can be stress-coping resources for many people.
People who have had heart attacks live longer if they have pets, for example. In fact, Dr. Edgar Kenton of Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta says, “Pets in general seem to have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease.” Watching tropical fish temporarily reduces blood pressure as does petting a dog. Pets provide companionship and support in a variety of ways for a variety of persons. If you absolutely cannot afford to keep a pet or cannot have one for whatever reason, have no fear. You can adopt a FooPet, a realistic looking virtual online kitten or puppy.
God/faith as friend
In my faith, Christianity, God is a person. Prayer is seen as communication between a person or persons and God. People read the Bible as God’s written word — biblical bibliotherapy. We see God in family terms: God is our parent, and Jesus the Son is our sibling. We also see Jesus as friend (e.g., the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”), and we experience God in and through other people. Ultimately God is the source of all other forms of support and is the most important source. Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble.”
More and more evidence from research shows that spiritual/religious faith, beliefs and practices are therapeutic. They are, indeed, coping resources, and for many these coping resources are seen as given to us by a personal God. They are types of supra social support.
Support from other people is the most important stress-coping resource. If you have supportive family/friends don’t hesitate to ask them for support when you need it. If you don’t have easy access to supportive family or friends you can still make new friends, see a professional counselor, find a self-help group, read self-help books, journal, get a pet, and access your faith. You have no need to go through life alone.
Marty Seitz is an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Asbury University, where he has taught since 1989. He got his bachelor’s in psychology from Asbury University, studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, got a master’s degree in community counseling and a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Georgia State University. In addition to his teaching, he has practiced as a licensed psychologist in Lexington since 1989, doing individual and couples’ counseling and has been working with the Access Wellness Group since its inception.
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