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How to stay sane: Give emotional support to friends and family, but let them help you, too

An imbalance in social support — whether someone provides more than they receive or vice versa — is associated with worse psychological health, according to a USC study

Two women talking (illustration)
Are your relationships one-sided? USC researchers say imbalanced social support could be bad for your psychological well-being.(Illustration/iStock)

Ever feel like you’re constantly helping friends or family members solve their problems, but don’t get the same help in return? Or do you think you ask too much of loved ones and don’t return the favor often enough?

Either way, receiving and giving social support are important and need to be kept in balance, according to a study led by USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology PhD candidate Diana Wang.

Independently, receiving social support and giving it to others have each been associated with better psychological well-being, but until now, very little research has compared both forms of support in relation to well-being across the lifespan, Wang said. Her research suggests that an imbalance between giving and receiving support can result in negative psychological effects, although those associations vary depending on age.

Diana Wang

Diana Wang studies the effects social support on health. (Photo/Beth Newcomb)

Wang examined national data from more than 1,200 participants in the Study of Midlife in the United States who were surveyed about their perceptions of the support they give to and receive from spouses, other family members and friends, as well as measures of psychological distress.

Support given to others was measured by reports from participants about how much their friends, family members or spouses rely on them in a crisis or open up to them about personal worries, or vice versa for support received from others.

High anxiety?

Wang found higher levels of perceived stress and symptoms of depression or anxiety in those who report social support imbalances in either direction. Problems can arise when an individual is “underbenefitting” by giving more support than they receive, or “overbenefitting” by receiving more support than they give to others, she said, though underbenefitting appears to be more detrimental.

The study also reported that younger and middle-aged adults appear to feel more distressed about those imbalances than older adults do, possibly due to the idea of older adults having a greater “support bank.”

“One hypothesis may be that older adults are less distressed with either form of imbalance because they can rationalize that they have a history of ‘support payments’ to or from their network members that alleviate the imbalance,” Wang said.

Another finding that Wang found especially interesting was that overbenefitting from the support of friends didn’t seem to cause distress when compared to overbenefitting from the support of spouses or other family members.

Influence on health

Wang plans to continue her research on the pathways through which social relationships influence health. She is studying whether recalling support-giving memories will lead to healthier physiological responses to stress, measured by heart rate and cortisol, and will examine how the effects of support-giving may vary depending on whether people feel that they are in imbalanced relationships.

“By understanding the contexts in which social support can benefit people’s health, and how it changes throughout the lifespan, I hope that my work can inform the design of psychosocial interventions and opportunities for engagement in later life,” she said.

The article “The psychological costs of social support imbalance: Variation across relationship context and age” appeared online in the Journal of Health Psychology in February and was co-authored by Tara Gruenewald of California State University, Long Beach. The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging (grant T32 AG000037).

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How to stay sane: Give emotional support to friends and family, but let them help you, too

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