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How social support strengthens your resilience and helps you better cope with global crises

Much of the research on resilience has focused on individual strengths, but evidence now shows that perceived social support plays a far more important role in our mental resilience than previously thought - especially in catastrophic situations like the current crisis in Ukraine. That’s because social support helps us cope with crises more easily and recover more quickly from setbacks.

"Many studies show that the most important factor in resilience is caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that provide love and trust, offer role models, and provide encouragement and security help strengthen a person's resilience" according to the American Psychological Association. However, researchers have not always highlighted this kind of social support as a factor in individual resilience. (Resilience, by the way, is the ability to recover from difficulties and look positively to the future). Instead, a high value has been placed on examining personal qualities and the social context has often been pushed into the background.

Positive social relationships are key to resilience

"The availability of social support in all its forms - instrumental support, emotional support, support in the way you think about things - are all important and help us overcome challenges", says resilience researcher Elliot Friedman. It is therefore not surprising that social relationships are important for resilience, partly because they help us feel less stress when in periods of suffering.

Social support keeps you healthy

"There's no question that social relationships are important for health", Friedman says. "When you compare having few social relationships to other risk factors - like smoking and obesity - the lack of social relationships is just as strong a risk factor for death." The reason for this could be that good social relationships help us dampen stress responses. For example, just the loving touch of a healthcare worker has been shown to help reduce the perception of pain in accident victims, up to six months later.

Friends - our first aid kit in times of need

Perhaps the positive effect of supportive and loving friends and family members is why, when we are in trouble, we naturally turn to our social network for help - whether they offer emotional support or just a helping hand: "If you have friends you can talk to and share your worries with, if they can give you a new perspective on things - then social bonds can be useful", says Friedman.

Positive emotions strengthen relationships

Sharing positive emotions with others helps people connect and create and maintain strong, healthy and caring relationships. Caring relationships, in turn, provide social support that further strengthens emotional resilience and a positive emotional state. It is a circular, self-reinforcing movement towards health. In this, practicing gratitude strengthens relationships and social support networks, which helps reduce stress and depression. Showing gratitude can be practiced and integrated into everyday life.

Simple exercises to practice gratitude:

We take many everyday things for granted - but they are not (for example, having a roof over our heads or a job). That's why it's important to give thanks for the little things during the day. Feels strange at first? But it works, as we know from positive psychology. Because people focus their thoughts on everything that is positive, gratitude has a positive effect on the soul and drives away dull thoughts and feelings.

  • Write down 3 points for which you are grateful for before going to bed. With more appreciation, difficult situations suddenly seem easier and you more easily recognise the opportunity for change. This motivates you to tackle problems and solve them. Studies confirm this: People who practice gratitude live healthier and happier lives.

  • Saying thank you to your partner on a regular basis strengthens the relationship - and increases satisfaction, a US research team has found. Because saying thank you gives the other person recognition, and that in turn pushes their willingness to appreciate everything you do for them more. The beginning of a positive cycle!

Social relationships strengthen positive emotions

In addition, people who are experiencing a setback are often encouraged to see a therapist, join a support group or volunteer. Underlying all of these activities is the opportunity to build deeper or broader social and emotional bonds and to overcome crises together. Interestingly, research suggests that the relationship between a patient and a therapist is the most important factor in therapeutic success, much like the relationship within a support group - more important than therapeutic techniques, for example.

Especially in global crisis situations like the current Ukraine crisis, it becomes clearer than ever: It takes a village to help each of its member recover from a disaster and rediscover the positive. Because overcoming trauma and building resilience is easier with people who are going through the same thing.

In other words: If you are going through a difficult time, turn to the people around you or find a group of people who are going through a similar situation as you. Together you can get over it more easily and strengthen each other’s resilience.

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