The Importance Of Having A Strong Support System

When it comes to living with a chronic medical condition, few things are as important as your support system. Who you surround yourself with can have a dramatic impact not only on your mental health, but also on your physical health.

In this article, we’re going to discuss the importance of having a strong support system. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at what a support system is.

What is a support system?
When you’re living with a chronic illness, it’s essential to have people you can count on in your life. Even the most independent chronic illness sufferer will need someone at some point. I’m a perfect example of that.

In general, I like to be left alone most of the time. And when I’m in pain, I really like to be left alone. But when I’m in so much pain that I can’t function or so fatigued that I can’t get out of bed, as much as I don’t like to admit it, I need others.

That’s where my support system comes in. But what exactly is a support system?

According to Merriam-Webster,1 the medical definition of support system is “a network of people who provide an individual with practical or emotional support.” In other words, it’s basically the friends, family, and healthcare providers of the patient who offer emotional support, practical support, and help with some of the complicated medical decisions that have to be made.

Your support system can play a major role in your mood and anxiety levels, feelings of overall well-being, how and where you receive treatment, and many other factors. It can even affect the overall outcome of your illness.

That’s why it’s so important to not only have a support system, but to have one that you trust. You want to surround yourself with people who are understanding, compassionate, knowledgeable, and who have your best interest at heart.

Now that you have a basic idea of what a support system is, let’s look at the different types of support people can provide.

The different types of social support
If you’re living with a chronic illness, there are several ways in which your family and friends can support you. Let’s briefly take a look at the four different types of social support now.2

1. Emotional Support
When people think about social support systems, emotional support is usually the first type to come to mind. And it’s one of, if not the most important kinds of support.

In its most basic form, family members and close friends provide emotional support by simply lending an ear and just being there for you. They listen to what you’re going through and offer hope for the future.

Even if a family member or friend has no practical advice for you, simply being there can make a world of difference. Sometimes we just need someone to listen. Someone to tell us that it’s going to be okay. Someone to just be there when we need them. This is emotional support.

2. Tangible Support (aka Instrumental Support)
This is when a friend or family member helps you in a concrete, real-world way. Sometimes it’s referred to as instrumental support and sometimes it’s called tangible support. But both terms mean the same thing.

One example of tangible support would be a friend babysitting for you while you go to your medical appointments. Or let’s say you have mobility issues. A friend or family member doing your grocery shopping for you would be considered tangible support.

Anything that helps you in the outside world is tangible support. Another example would be giving or lending you money to help cover medical bills or other costs. These are just a few examples of tangible or instrumental support, but there are many others.

3. Informational Support
When it comes to living with a chronic illness, information is your friend. The more you know, the better off you’ll be. That’s why it’s so important to have people in your support system who are knowledgeable about your diagnosis.

Informational support can come in the form of advice, literature, suggestions, and other forms of information. If you’re on a new medication, for example, a friend who’s been on it for years might share her experience being on it with you. That’s informational support (and likely emotional support, too).

Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers can also offer informational and educational support. They may provide you with literature about your illness and other important information.

4. Companionship Support (aka Appraisal Support)
This type of support provides the patient with a sense of social belonging. Everyone needs to feel like they belong. But living with a chronic illness can often feel extremely lonely and sometimes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere.

One example of companionship support would be a friend taking you out to dinner, maybe going out afterwards, and meeting new people. Another would be a family member bringing you to a support group for people with your medical condition.

All four types of social support are incredibly important. They can make the different between feeling overwhelmingly alone and feeling like you actually belong. But what if you’re not the patient? What if you’re the friend or family member of someone living with a chronic illness and want to play a more active role in their support system?

Being a part of someone else’s support system
Maybe you’re not living with a chronic illness. But maybe you’re the friend or family member of someone who is. Or maybe you are living with a chronic illness and you’re also a part of someone else’s support system.

Whatever the case may be, you’re part of someone’s support system. So how can you provide the most support to them without it negatively affecting you?

The most important thing to remember is that you need to take care of your own needs first. If your own life is falling apart all around you, you’re not going to be able to provide much support for anyone else. Your life doesn’t have to be perfect but, before trying to be there for anyone else, make sure your own life is stable.

Assuming you’ve got your life at least somewhat in order, what can you do to support someone who’s living with a chronic illness? The most important things is to simply be there for them. Even if they say they don’t want or need anyone, let them know that you’re there for them if they change their mind. A lot of times people do change their minds.

Another thing you can do to be there for someone living with a chronic illness is to learn as much as you can about it. You don’t have to enroll in medical school, but read up on their diagnosis so you can get a better understanding of what they’re going through. Or, if you’re not crazy about reading, watch some YouTube videos about their condition. Listen to what other patients have to say about living with that particular illness.

If your schedule allows it, you can also offer to help out with some of the day-to-day things that go along with having a medical condition. Here are a few things you could offer to help with (tangible support):

* Picking up medications at the pharmacy
* Going to and from doctors appointments with them
* Cleaning around the house
* Cooking meals
* Scheduling appointments/dealing with referrals and health insurance
* Going food shopping and running other errands

Those are just a few examples off the top of my head. But I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to support a friend or family member living with a chronic illness.

The importance of social support
We briefly touched on this when looking at what a support system is. But for people with chronic illnesses, the importance of having a strong support system can’t be overstated.

It’s been well-documented that people who don’t have a strong support network do have higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to people with a good support system.3 Additionally, people with low levels of support are also more likely to have major mental illnesses like post traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, eating disorders, and many more.4

Obviously, a strong support system can have a major impact on your mental health. But it can also affect your physical health, healthcare costs, quality of life, and level of functioning.5 As you can see, having a strong social support system can make a huge difference in your life.

That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people you trust and who you know have your best interest at heart. Sometimes your support system consists of just a single family member. That’s okay. Sometimes it consists of twenty friends, ten family members, and five different doctors. That’s okay, too.

As long as you’ve got some support system in place, that’s all that ultimately matters. You need at least one person to be there for you. Living with a chronic illness can be incredibly lonely and simply having someone there can make all the difference in the world.

If you have a chronic illness, you should try to also develop a strong support system. It will improve the way you feel and may even increase the effectiveness of whatever treatment you’re on. But most importantly, having a support system will make you feel less alone.

If you liked this article, you may also like some of the other articles in the Chronic Illness category. Here are just a few of them:

Do you have a strong support system? How has it helped you to deal with your illness? Please leave your answers in the comments section at the bottom. And if you haven’t already, please sign up for the EM newsletter below.

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After working in the mental-health field for 15 years, Ellis Michaels began writing professionally in 2014. He’s authored over 100 articles and short stories, several novels, and a memoir about living with Behcet’s disease, a rare, chronic illness. When not writing, Ellis enjoys reading, playing music, spending time with his son, the ocean, and anything outdoorsy.