When a person we care about is trying to cope with a stressful event in their life, we obviously want to help them cope as much as possible. Unfortunately our attempts to help may actually be no help at all. Researchers have found that people, who report receiving help coping with a stressful event, only cope as well or even worse than people who don’t report receiving any help. This may happen because receiving help draws our attention to our problem, is a blow to our self-esteem or the “help” is just not that good and makes the problem worse. Researchers have also found, however, that people who just believe they have access to social support if they should need it, cope better than those who don’t think they have sources of social support. In other words, in times of stress, if we think we have sources of social support we cope well. Yet if we actually receive help from those sources of social support we don’t cope as well. These two findings seem contradictory, so a group of researchers from
and New York University conducted an experiment to
try and reconcile these inconsistent findings. Harvard Medical
What was the research about?
The researchers recruited 68 couples in which one person was preparing to take the New York State Bar Examination. The Bar Examination is a 2-day test that all aspiring lawyers must pass before they can practice law and is generally a very stressful event. For each of the 32 days leading up to the Bar Exam, both members of each couple individually completed a short diary form. In the diary form, the person about to take the Bar Exam (the examinee) indicated their feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as whether they had received social support from their partner that day. The partner indicated whether he or she had given the examinee social support that day.
Results showed that during the time of highest stress (the week before the exam), feelings of anxiety and depression actually increased on days when the examinee reported receiving social support from their partner. This was true whether or not the partner had actually provided any social support that day. On the other hand, anxiety and depression decreased on days when the partner provided social support but the examinee did not report receiving social support. In other words, on days when the person under stress was given social support but just didn’t realize it, they felt better. How could a person receive support and not realize it? One example is when your partner does a household chore without even telling you. The stress associated with the chore is gone but you don’t even realize your partner helped you out. These results show that receiving social support does help people cope with stress, but only when their attention is not drawn to the fact they are getting help from another person.
Why should it matter to me?
It’s very common for people to want to help others cope with a stressful event. If we aren’t careful how we approach helping the other person, however, we may just cause them more stress. If we help them in a very obvious way this may just make the person feel worse by highlighting their vulnerability to stress. Instead, we should try to help them in ways that don’t draw their attention to their stress. Realizing how to best help a person cope is also important in times when we end up causing them more stress. By understanding which type of help is actually beneficial, we can avoid becoming confused or angry if a person reacts negatively to receiving our “help”.
Source: Bolger, Niall; Zuckerman, Adam & Kessler, Ronald C. (2000). Invisible Support and Adjustment to Stress. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 79, 953-961.