Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Social support and emotion

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Social support and emotion:
What effect does social support have on emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Social support is a personal perception that someone is valued within society and within their relationships with others, making them part of a larger social network (Taylor, 2012). Social support is an important function of relationships and can come from anyone; partners, family, friends, coworkers etc (Allen, Blascovich, & Mendes, 2002). There are benefits to social support that are evident through application of the buffering hypothesis. The buffering hypothesis notes that social support acts as a reserve and resource that blunts the effects of stress or enables an individual to deal with stress more effectively (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Overall social support is a beneficial phenomenon.

Emotions are a phenomenon that the scientific world finds hard to define. Emotions influence a person's thinking, decision-making, actions, relationships, and a person's physical and mental health (Izard, 2010). In one way, emotions have been defined as a response system and feeling state/process that motivates and organises a person's cognition and action. This cognition is ongoing as a person continues to interpret their feeling state, expression, and social-communicative signals (Izard, 2010). Emotions are then regulated by the individual through antecedent-focused and response-focused strategies (Gross & John, 2003).

Within the world of emotions there is positive affectivity and negative affectivity (Watson, 2002). Positive affect is the extent to which an individual experiences positive emotions and positive states such as joy (Watson, 2002). Negative affect is the the extent to which an individual experiences negative emotional states for example anger and sadness (Watson, 2002). Together, these psychological concepts are connected. Social support can have and does have an effect on positive and negative emotion states. A person who elicits high positive emotion is more likely to build a bigger and better social network and have higher levels of social support compared to a person who elicits higher levels of negative emotion (Peirce, Frone, Russell, Cooper, & Mudar, 2000).

Focus questions
  • What is social support?
  • What are emotions?
  • What effect does social support have on emotions?

What is social support?[edit | edit source]

Case study 1

Amanda is a 21 year old university student. She attends classes at the university three days a week in order to keep up with the course work. Amanda also has a casual job at the local supermarket working three days a week in order to earn enough money to pay her household rent and utility bills. Lately Amanda has had a lot on her mind; she has two assignments coming up that she's worried she won't finish in time and wants to ask work for some time off in order to complete them. However, Amanda's car registration is also due in two weeks and if she takes time off work for her university assignments she won't have enough money to afford her car registration. With her assignments being due in only days, Amanda is beginning to stress and feel helpless as she doesn't know what to do to solve her issues. What are her options?

Social support is the perception or experience that an individual is loved and cared for by others, esteemed and valued, and is part of a social network of mutual assistance and obligations (Wills, 1991; Taylor, 2012). It is considered to be one of the most important functions of social relationships and can be placed into four broad categories of supportive behaviour:

  1. Emotional support: this involves the provision of empathy, love, trust and care to someone. Emotional support provides warmth and nurturance to another to reassure someone that they are a valuable person for whom others care.
  2. Instrumental support: this involves the provision of tangible assistance to another in the form of services, financial assistance, and other specific aid or goods.
  3. Informational support: this type of support occurs when one individual helps another to understand a stressful event better and to ascertain what resources and coping strategies may be needed in order to effectively deal with the stressful event.
  4. Appraisal support: this is the provision of information that is useful to an individual for self-evaluation purposes, for example constructive feedback and affirmation (Taylor, 2012; Heaney & Israel, 2008).

Social support can come from anyone including partners, relatives, friends, coworkers, community and social ties, and even pets (Taylor, 2012; Allen et al., 2002). For example, friends and family can be regarded as providing emotional support and informational support to people, coworkers can provide appraisal support with constructive feedback at work, and community ties can provide instrumental support in the form of health services or financial assistance. Social support is known to be beneficial which is evident through the buffering hypothesis as an example.

Buffering hypothesis[edit | edit source]

The buffering hypothesis shows that support is related to well-being for persons under stress. This is because support buffers or protects a person from the potentially detrimental influence of a stressful event (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Stress occurs in a person when a person appraises a situation as threatening or demanding and they do not have the appropriate coping mechanism to effectively respond (Cohen & Wills, 1985). The effects of stress appraisal lead to negative affect, elevation of physiological responses, and behavioural adaptations (Cohen & Wills, 1985). When stressful events persist and put strain on the individual they struggle in their problem solving capacity to find effective solutions which can cause feelings of helplessness and a loss of self-esteem (Cohen & Wills, 1985).

The buffering hypothesis will interact with stress in two ways. First, social support may intervene between the stressful event and a stress reaction by preventing a stress appraisal response from the individual (Cohen & Wills, 1985). This is because there is a perception from the individual that others can or will help provide support and necessary resources which can help redefine the situation and prevent it from becoming a highly stressful event (Cohen & Wills, 1985). The second time is when an individual has already perceived the event as stressful and is experiencing emotionally linked physiological responses and behavioural adaptations, but the stress has not yet hit detrimental levels of illness or illness behaviour. Support at this time may reduce or eliminate the physiological stress response by providing a solution to the problem and reducing the perceived importance of the problem so that the individual is less likely to react (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Thus, through the buffering hypothesis social support can act as a reserve and a resource that reduces the effects of stress and can enable an individual to react and cope more effectively (Taylor, 2012).

Case study 1

Amanda turns to her friends and family to let them know about her stressful situation. As Amanda's friends are university students as well, in response to her stress they provide Amanda with informational support by letting her know how to best prioritise her time and implement effective time management skills to complete her assignments without having to take time off work. Alternatively, Amanda's parents provide instrumental support by lending her some money to help get her finances in order so that Amanda can comfortably take time off work to finish her university assignments. Both parents and family also provide emotional support to Amanda by letting her know they are always around to listen to her and help her when she feels like she is struggling. As a result, Amanda is able to finish her assignments on time without having to take time off work, and is able to pay for her car registration and pay back the money her parents gave her. This social interaction will help Amanda build effective coping mechanisms for similar stressful events that arise in the future.

Quick quiz

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

What are the categories of social support?

emotional support
cognitive support
informational support
appraisal support
environmental support

What are emotions?[edit | edit source]

Emotions influence a person's thinking, decision-making, social relationships overall health however there is no consensus on the definition of the word (Izard, 2010). Caroll Izard came up with a wholesome definition after conducting a study by providing scientists from various disciplines and specialist areas related to emotion with a survey asking a series of questions about emotions (Izard, 2010). The results revealed there was no agreement on a unitary definition of the concept of emotion however there was agreement to some extent on the functions and structures of emotion.

Figure 1. James-Lange theory of emotion.

Consistent with this idea that emotions are a response system and a feeling state/process (Izard, 2010) Figure 1 illustrates the James-Lange theory of emotion that there is an emotion producing stimulus, which triggers a physiological response and is then interpreted as a particular emotion (Dalgleish, 2004). It is evident that whilst everyone knows that emotions exist, it is a hard concept to define in the scientific world. Yet with a general consensus and agreement on the concept, it can be further built on in regards to different types of emotions and emotion regulation which will be discussed next.

How are emotions regulated?[edit | edit source]

As discussed previously, emotions elicit behavioural and physiological responses that influence our response to perceived challenges or opportunities (Gross, 2002). Sometimes our emotions do well and respond effectively to our environment, sometimes however emotions mislead us which is where regulation comes in (Gross, 2002). Emotional regulation is the process where individuals can influence which emotions they have, how they have them and when they experience and express them (Gross, 1998). Emotions can be regulated through antecedent-focused and response-focused strategies (Gross & John, 2003).

Antecedent-focused strategies[edit | edit source]

Antecedent-focused strategies are things individuals do before the emotion response tendencies have been fully activated and have changed their behaviour and peripheral psychological responding. For example, an antecedent focused strategy could be an individual seeing a job interview as an opportunity to learn more about the company rather than a mere pass or fail test (Gross, 2002). Antecedent-focused strategies are considered to be a form of cognitive appraisal as an individual centres around cognitively engaging with and reframing aversive events in order to mitigate their negative emotional impact (D’Arbeloff, Freedy, Knodt, Radtke, Brigidi, & Hariri, 2018). Those who use reappraisal tend to exhibit lower symptoms of depression and anxiety, and higher self-esteem, well-being, interpersonal relationships and coping skills (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018).

Response-focused strategies[edit | edit source]

Response-focused strategies are things individuals do once an emotion is already underway, after the response tendencies have been generated. For example, an individual may try to hide their anxiety and sadness from showing as their child leaves for kindergarten for the first time (Gross, 2002). This is also known as a form of regulation through expressive suppression, as the individual actively suppresses or inhibits an emotion in order to appear unaffected (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). Individuals who habitually use suppression tactics tend to have increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor social support networks, low self-esteem and low life satisfaction (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). These strategies are important because research has suggested that social support can influence a person's coping behaviour, emotion regulation and physiological response to stress (Marroquín & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2015).

Quick quiz

Choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

What is the name of the process where individuals can influence which emotions they have, when they have them and when they experience or express them?

cognitive reappraisal
expressive suppression
emotional responses
emotional regulation

What effect does social support have on emotion?[edit | edit source]

As is mentioned above, perceived social support has benefits to an individual (Taylor, 2012). After having a look at the concepts of social support and emotion on their own its[grammar?] now time to consider what influence social support does have on emotion. This will be considered in terms of social support and negative affect, and social support and positive affect (Watson, 2002).

Case study 2

Abigail is an 17 year old high school student. Her boyfriend Daniel of 3 years has just broken up with her. Abigail feels devastated that her and Daniel broke up, yet angry that he betrayed her as he said he would never leave her. Abigail is also fearful that she will never find anyone else like Daniel to make her happy again. When Abigail is at school her friends try to talk to her about Daniel but she doesn't say anything. She doesn't appear sad to her friends when they try to talk to her about Daniel. Her friends think that Abigail is just trying to hide how she really feels yet they don't know what to do because they can't help Abigail if she won't talk about her feelings surrounding her break up with Daniel. Abigail's friends are beginning to feel awkward around her and are avoiding hanging out with her so they can avoid the elephant in the room. Abigail can sense this which just makes her even more upset and is beginning to skip school days.

Social support and negative affect[edit | edit source]

Negative affectivity is a phenomenon that explains and represents the extent to which an individual experiences negative emotional states for example fear, anger, sadness, guilt, contempt etc. (Watson, 2002). People with high negative affectivity are more likely to experience emotional states such as guilt, fear, and anxiety (Berry & Hanson, 1998). This in turn leads to poor psychological health as negative affect states sustained over time will elicit depression, anxiety, hostility, and tension which constitutes risk factors for illness (Wills, 1990).

Research has shown that compared to supportive responses from people when someone is dealing with a stressful event, unsupportive responses from a person's social network increase an individuals[grammar?] negative affect (Marroquína, Nolen-Hoeksemab[spelling?], Clark, & Stanton, 2019). This may be based on the idea that there is a perception that one lacks basic social resources in everyday life, which leads to perceived helplessness or a failure to effectively develop coping mechanisms for life's stressful events, which in turn may enhance depression if sustained for long periods of time (Peirce et al., 2000).

Negative affect has a relationship with emotional regulation specifically when considering expressive suppression (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). When individuals use response-focused strategies such as suppression during social interactions, it is more likely to produce lower social satisfaction, lower closeness with others, and decreased responsiveness (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). This is because the individual is producing nothing more than avoidance behaviours. In response the person making contact with an individual who is suppressing their emotions reports feeling higher levels of stress, lower feelings of closeness towards the person and lack of positive feelings towards them (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). As such the person interacting with the individual utilising expressive suppression is more likely to avoid future interaction (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). This puts social support and negative affect into nothing but a vicious cycle as an individual experiencing negative emotions and engaging in expressive suppression will perceive their social support to be low and will avoid seeking help thus maintaining the level of negative affect being experienced. If the individual decides to eventually reach out to their social support network but they continue to engage in expressive suppression, the person interacting with them from their social network will experience negative affect themselves and may not be inclined to help, reducing contact with the individual. The cycle does nothing more than continue until the individual sustains their negative affect over time and experiences poor health through depression or anxiety (Wills, 1990). If however the individual can engage in cognitive reappraisal they are more likely to reinforce a supportive and positive interaction with their support network and promote effective coping mechanisms for themselves in order to reduce their negative affect experience (Marroquín & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2015).

Social support and positive affect[edit | edit source]

Positive affect or positive affectivity is the extent to which an individual experiences positive emotions and positive states such as joy, interest, confidence, etc (Watson, 2002). People with high positive affectivity are said to be people who are enthusiastic, confident, and active (Berry & Hanson, 1998). Positive affect is also associated with better health and a higher level of well-being (Berry & Hanson, 1998).

The exact process through which social support is linked to positive affect is somewhat unclear, however it could be derived from regular social interaction and leisure activities where the focus is on a positive mood and relaxation (Wills, 1990). For example, when a person has contact with people within their social network this provides a basis for a perception of social support; a perception of social support is influenced by the availability of direct contact from a spouse or partner, family, close friends, neighbours, religious groups, voluntary groups and community associations (Peirce et al., 2000). This then leads to a negative relation to depression and poor psychological health because if someone believes or has the perception that they can turn to family and friends to help provide them with emotional and practical assistance, this will reduce negative affect over time (Peirce et al., 2000). This may be because with more perceived social support people spend less time worrying about their daily hassles and life problems (Peirce et al., 2000).

Positive affect is connected with emotional regulation when considering cognitive reappraisal. Individuals who habitually use cognitive reappraisal and re-frame negative events in order to avoid negative affect are more likely to report higher levels of social satisfaction, closer relationships with others, and a higher willingness to share emotions with others which in turn makes the individual more likeable and a lot easier to be around (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). In turn when an individual expresses their emotions, the person interacting with them may engage in informational support and provide their own version of cognitive reframing to the stressful situation which reinforces a supportive interaction, reduces distress for the individual and promotes effective coping mechanisms to stress (Marroquín & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2015). This social support continuously reinforces cognitive reappraisal and coping mechanisms to stressful events, which increases the frequency of positive affect and allows the individual to elicit positive states of joy, happiness, interest, enthusiasm, and confidence (Berry & Hanson, 1998).

In relation to the buffering hypothesis discussed above social support can improve positive affect by acting as a resource through stressful events and enabling the person to cope more effectively. This can occur either between the stressful event and the stress reaction, or when the event has already been perceived as stressful and physiological responses have been engaged (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Social support decreases experiences of negative affect and stress and increases experiences of positive affect and happiness (Marroquín & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2015). Supportive responses from friends and family, like that experienced by Amanda in our first case study can reduce emotional distress in individuals and promote effective coping mechanisms which can help in future stressful events (Marroquín & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2015).

Case study 2

After a couple of weeks of isolating herself Abigail has had enough. Her friends haven't spoken to her in weeks so she has decided it is now time to reach out to them. Abigail organises to meet up with them at school and finally come to terms with how she feels about her break up with Daniel. Abigail's friends provide emotional support that they always knew the breakup was upsetting her and they wanted to be nothing but supportive yet Abigail's suppression of her emotions made it difficult to openly talk about it. Abigail accepts this and understands that hiding her emotions only made things difficult and worse for her social interactions and personal health. Abigail's friends talk to her about how best to cope with the breakup and provide strategies to help her move on.

Months later Abigail feels like a new confident and happy woman. She has re-framed her thoughts around her breakup with Daniel and understands that breaking up is a natural social process. Abigail is able to look at the relationship in a more positive light and be happy with the time she did spend with Daniel. Abigail now talks openly to her friends about her emotions and they continue to provide support to her in times of stress. Abigail can effectively resolve daily hassles and can now continue to have higher levels of self-esteem, happiness and confidence in herself.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Social support is a person's perception or experience that they are loved and cared for by other people and have a social network made up of family, friends, coworkers and community members that they can rely on (Wills, 1991; Taylor, 2012). Through receiving social support in different forms people can receive support that can have beneficial impacts on their emotions and well-being. Social support is evident through the buffering hypothesis showing it is related to a person's well-being when they are under stress (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Either before a stressful event or whilst the event has been treated as stressful social support can act as a reserve that reduces the effects of stress and can enable an individual to cope more effectively (Taylor, 2012).

Emotions are a concept that has been hard to define as many people look at it in different ways. There has been consensus however on some of the structures and functions of emotion that they are a feeling/state process which is a response system to a person's environment (Izard, 2010). Emotions are then regulated through either cognitive appraisal which is an antecedent-focused strategy or through expressive suppression which is a response-focused strategy (Gross & John, 2003). These strategies of emotion regulation can be related to social support in considering negative and positive affect. Negative affect is the extent to which a person experiences negative emotion states (Watson, 2002). Negative affect is related to expressive suppression as people avoid expressing their emotions which is more likely to produce lower social satisfaction, lower closeness with others, decreased responsiveness in social support and increased experience of negative affect (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). Positive affect is the extent to which an individual experiences positive emotions and this is connected to cognitive appraisal as individuals who habitually use cognitive reappraisal to re-frame negative events and avoid negative affect are more likely to report higher levels of social satisfaction, closer relationships with others and continued experiences of positive affect (D’Arbeloff et al., 2018). Thus, social support is an important phenomenon in a person's life and how they experience and regulate their emotions.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Allen, K., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(5), 727-739. doi: 10.1097/01.PSY.0000024236.11538.41

Berry, D. S., & Hansen, J. S. (1996). Positive affect, negative affect, and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(4), 796-809. Retrieved from

Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310-357. Retrieved from

Dalgleish, T. (2004). The emotional brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 583-589. Retrieved from

D’Arbeloff, T. C., Freedy, K. R., Knodt, A. R., Radtke, S. R., Brigidi, B. D., & Hariri, A. R. (2018). Emotion regulation and the experience of future negative mood: The importance of assessing social support. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(2287), 1-5. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02287

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271-299. Retrieved from

Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39, 281-291. Retrieved from

Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: implications for affect, relationships and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348-362. Retrieved from

Heaney, C. A., & Israel, B. A. (2008). Social networks and social support. In K. Glanz, B. K. Rimer, & K. Viswanath (Eds.), Health behaviour and health education: Theory, research and practice (pp. 189-210). Retrieved from

Izard, C. E. (2010) The many meanings/aspects of emotion: definitions, functions, activation, and regulation. Emotion Review, 2, 363-370. Retrieved from

Marroquín, B., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2015). Emotion regulation and depressive symptoms: Close relationships as social context and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(5), 836–855. doi:10.1037/pspi0000034

Marroquin, B., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Clark, M. S., & Stanton, A. L. (2019). Social influences on cognitive processing in enacted social support: Effects on receivers' cognitive appraisals, emotion, and affiliation. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 32(4), 457-475. doi: 10.1080/10615806.2019.1619702

Peirce, R. S., Frone, M. R., Russell, M., Cooper, M. L., & Mudar, P. (2000). A longitudinal model of social contact, social support, depression, and alcohol use. Health Psychology, 19(1), 28-38. doi: 10.1037//0278-6133.19.1.28

Taylor, S. E. (2012). Social support: a review. In The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology Retrieved from

Watson, D. (2002). Positive affectivity: The disposition to experience pleasurable emotional states. In C. R. Snyder, & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 106-119). Retrieved from

Wills, T. A. (1991). Social support and interpersonal relationships. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 12. Prosocial behavior (pp. 265-289). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

Wills, T. A. (1990). Social support and the family. In E. A. Blechman (Ed.), Emotions and the family: For better or for worse (pp. 75-98). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

External links[edit | edit source]