Personal relationships and social support have been shown to buffer the negative effects of stress inside and outside the workplace, according to George Vaillant, then of Harvard, with colleagues SE Meyer, Kenneth Mukamal, and Stephen Soldz.
They evaluated data from a 50-year prospective multivariate study of 223 men and found that engaging with others during a stressful event improves mood, but withdrawing from others increases anxiety, depression, and stress.
In this sample, friends seemed more important than closeness to spouse and to children for sustained physical health.
Social relationships that buffer stress and anxiety include family closeness and connectedness, problem-focused family coping skills, clear family organization, explicit decision making, and direct communication according to University of California, San Francisco’s Lawrence Fisher and Karen Weihs of University of Arizona.
In contrast, lack of social connections can increase both stress and susceptibility to disease agents due to alterations in the neuroendocrine system, according to Vaillant and team.
Undermining relationship characteristics include hostility, criticism, and blame within the family; family perfectionism and rigidity; and psychopathology, according to Fisher and Weihs.
Stress-reducing social support can come from animal companions, according to SUNY Buffalo’s Karen Allen, Barbara Shykoff, and Joseph Izzo, who demonstrated that “nonevaluative social support” from animal companions reduces blood pressure in response to mental stress.
Forty-eight hypertensive volunteers were assigned to random comparison groups: One group had animal companions in addition to an anti-hypertensive medication (angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitor or ACE inhibitor) and the other group received medication only.
Before participants received medication, volunteerss in both groups had similar physical responses to stress, measured by blood pressure, heart rate, and plasma renin activity.
Allen, Shykoff, and Izzo monitored these physical indicators after experimental mental stressors (serial subtraction and speech), compared with baseline measures.
They found that although medication alone lowers resting blood pressure, social support from animal companions was associated with lower blood pressure in response to mental stress.
Oxytocin may promote seeking social support when experiencing stress and the impulse to withdraw from others, shown in research by Concordia University’s Mark Ellenbogen and Christopher Cardoso.
They demonstrated that oxytocin can increase a person’s trust in others following social rejection.
Volunteers received oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo, then experienced experimentally-induced social rejection when confederates challenged, interrupted, and ignored the participants.
Volunteers who inhaled oxytocin before the experimental social rejection and who reported greater distress on mood and personality questionnaires also said they generally invest greater trust in other people.
In contrast, oxytocin had no effect on trust among volunteers who were not bothered by the evoked social rejection.
These findings suggest that oxytocin may help individuals experiencing stress access the benefits of social support and may become an additional stress management option.
-*How can workplaces enable social support for employees experiencing stress?
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