“You can make it, but it’s easier if you don’t have to do it alone.” – Betty Ford
Do you ever feel lonely? Isolated? Like you have no one to turn to? That no one really understands you, or perhaps you feel alone after an event or situation you are currently going through? Do you feel like you have someone to lean on… on those really hard days?
This week I attended a support group I have been a part of now for over 12 months. It was created by a dear friend of mine who is on the same journey as our family with Congenital Heart Disease. It’s a group of Mums (sometimes Dads) who all have children with complex medical needs.
We did our usual catch up and I headed home feeling the same way that I always do…. relieved. So it got me thinking about our journey so far. About how far we have come from the very beginning. About the support I have found within my circle, from family, friends, professionals and from strangers I have met through support groups.
Last night reminded me what it was like in the beginning when I was pregnant and our unborn baby was diagnosed with Congenital Heart Disease and other issues. It reminded me of the first year where I struggled through depression, anxiety and PTSD. Where I felt so alone and isolated even though there was support around me. It reminded me how important and how appreciative I am for the support network I have built over the last 5 years.
So I decided to share with you why I think support networks are so important for anyone, it doesn’t matter what your life looks like, I think anyone could benefit from surrounding themselves with the right social support networks. Surrounding themselves with the right people, that bring positivity, lift people up, are there in times of need, that understand and don’t judge, that offer advice or just a shoulder and a listening ear.
I want to share as much information as I can about what a social support network is, the benefits of having one, how to grow the one that you have and where and how to look for more support.
What are social support networks
I will be the first to admit that I really struggled to define what a social support network is but, luckily for me I found an easy to understand definition from Wikipedia…
Social support is the perception and actuality that one is cared for, has assistance available from other people, and most popularly, that one is part of a supportive social network. These supportive resources can be emotional (e.g., nurturance), informational (e.g., advice), or companionship (e.g., sense of belonging); tangible (e.g., financial assistance) or intangible (e.g., personal advice).
As Wikipedia has defined above, there can be many forms of support found within a network and they have categorised these into 4 easy to understand categories:
- Emotional support is the offering of empathy, concern, affection, love, trust, acceptance, intimacy, encouragement, or caring. It is the warmth and nurturance provided by sources of social support. Providing emotional support can let the individual know that he or she is valued. It is also referred to as “esteem support” or “appraisal support.”
- Tangible support is the provision of financial assistance, material goods, or services. Also called instrumental support, this form of social support encompasses the concrete, direct ways people assist others.
- Informational support is the provision of advice, guidance, suggestions, or useful information to someone. This type of information has the potential to help others problem-solve.
- Companionship support is the type of support that gives someone a sense of social belonging (and is also called belonging). This can be seen as the presence of companions to engage in shared social activities.
These four types of supports can come from all kinds of sources… family, friends, work colleagues, professionals, support groups, online groups and sometimes total strangers. I have caught myself chatting to strangers MANY times about life and the hardships our family have faced. In hospital I have found many friends by chatting to other parents on wards and in waiting rooms.
Support can be found in all places if you know how to find it and how to reach out for it.
Why everyone needs a social support network
Life is full of hurdles, everyone has them… we are all facing our own battles every day. A quote that I often use when talking to my friends or family or people that I encounter is “A problem shared is a problem halved”. I truly believe that without the support I have received over the years that my life would look very different.
So why is it so important to have a good social support network? I have my own experiences with building good social support networks after our daughters diagnosis with CHD, after health issues and weight loss surgery, through depression and anxiety and just in general life.
Here is a list of the great things that building my network has brought to my life:
- Not feeling alone – finding the people in my life who were experiencing a similar journey really made be feel less alone in the world and like I had someone on my side.
- Feeling less isolated – there were often times when we were separated from the real world due to surgery, sickness etc. having access to the online world and a good network really helped that isolation feel less overwhelming.
- Being able to express my feelings freely – having people who just listened and validated my feelings when I needed to vent or have a good cry without judgment. People who didn’t dismiss my feelings or brush them off.
- Getting practical help – coming home from the hospital to a fridge full of groceries or a clean house and home cooked meal waiting for us really took the pressure off. When we are at our most vulnerable, having to not think about the little things like what’s in the fridge or what to cook can really help.
- Hope – finding others in our situation who were further along in the journey gave me hope that things would be OK and that we would be able to make it through. This is especially true when meeting other children who have CHD like our daughter and have been through surgeries and are living a great life.
- Helping others/ give and take – having the opportunity to give back to the wonderful people in my life is an amazing thing. Being able to support people in the same ways we have been supported is so fulfilling. Knowing what has really helped us in our times of need and being able to pay that forward to someone else is an incredibly rewarding thing to do.
- Advice – I have received invaluable advice along the way from so many people in my own network and some of it is the only reason I am healthy and happy today. Everyone offers their “advice” or opinion and we don’t need to take it all on board but be open-minded as it may turn out to be exactly the right kind of advice.
- Information – a lot of the time when something big happens or changes in your life it can be daunting trying to find your way. Having a support network can really help to provide information to assist you on your journey. An example for us would be information given to us about how to navigate the medical system here and where to go to for support. We would have never known this kind of info if it wasn’t for the incredible people in my circle.
I could go on and on about the benefits brought to my life by my own circle of support. I feel that all of us should be able to live a life with the right people backing us up and the right support when we need it. We can live a much happier and less stressful life if we have the right support.
Where to find social support groups
As I mentioned above you can find support in so many places, it can take time and research and a lot of effort to find and keep the right people in your life. So here are a few ideas on where to look:
- Family & Friends – recognise those family members and friends who really support you 100% without adding pressure or judgment, these are the people you want to reach out to and lean on when you need support. The last 5 years has really opened my eyes to the people who really matter in my life, those who stood strongly by me all the way and those that couldn’t. I realised that people come and go from our lives and that we have to just accept that and appreciate those who stick by our sides.
- Local Support Groups – most communities have support groups available for a range of different things, check out google or Facebook and see if there is something that suits you.
- Online Support Groups – I can almost guarantee there is an online group for just about anything you could think of. Jump online and see what you can find. Facebook groups are a great place to start, I have made friends all over the world through online groups.
- Charity Organisations – there are so many charity organisations out there that can provide you with support or direct you where to find support. Reach out and build up your support network. Some of the most special people I have in my life were found through organisations like Heartkids, Ronald McDonald House and Hospital Charities. These charities also present an opportunity to volunteer and give back too.
- Work Colleagues – Getting to know your work colleagues can be a great way to build you circle of support, we have had so much support from my partners workmates through our journey which makes the process so much easier. Having the understanding from your workplace can also be helpful when you need time off or are struggling. I don’t mean that you need to disclose your deepest, darkest feelings but let them know what’s going on so you have the support at work. After all most of us spend a lot of our time working and if you are the sole or main earner in the house chances are you spend more time at work than at home.
- Sporting and Social Groups – being a part of sporting and social groups is a great way to build a social support network, we have had so many offers for help through our own groups like our local gym, support groups and local charity organisations. It’s also great for physical and mental health to become a part of a group.
Here are some last minute tips to remember when trying to build and maintain and good strong support network.
- Don’t Compete – it is my experience that sometimes certain support networks can become like a competition of who has it worse or what is more serious. Don’t compete with others and if you find yourself in that kind of environment, perhaps it is not the right one.
- Listen – don’t forget to listen, we can get caught up in our own problems and forget to consider others (I am so guilty of this sometimes) so make sure to take a moment, take a breath and listen to what others have or need to say. You need to be able to offer the same support you receive in your support network, so be a good listener.
- Stay in touch – sometimes we forget to call or text and it can really have an impact on our relationships. It is a two-way street when it comes to keeping in touch so make sure to make an effort to keep in touch with people in you social support network and reply to emails, texts etc.
- Be thankful – one of the strongest emotions we feel is appreciation, it feels so nice to know we are appreciated or that the work we have done or help we have given is noticed and appreciated. So don’t forget to let those people inside your circle know just how much they mean to you, how grateful you are to have them.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help – don’t be scared to ask for help when you really need it. I learnt this the hard way by trying to do everything alone and burning myself out. People in your network want to help, a lot of the time they don’t know how… so ASK. If you need a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread delivered then ask somebody. If someone offers to cook you a meal, say YES. If someone offers to pop in for coffee or meet you for dinner… go, even if you are feeling emotional or vulnerable. We all NEED support and in my experience we often hold back from allowing others to help us.
Take a really good look at the support network you have around you… write it down if that helps. See what areas could do with improvement and start reaching out. It can take time and trial and error to find the right kind of support. It has taken me years to build a network that I trust and am confident and happy in.
“Choose to focus your time, energy and conversation around people who inspire you, support you and help you to grow you into your happiest, strongest, wisest self”.
– Karen Salmansohn