Giving Support to Others Has Benefits

Social support has well-known benefits for physical and mental health. But giving support—rather than receiving it—may have unique positive effects on key brain areas involved in stress and reward responses, suggests a study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine.

The study included 36 subjects from a larger study of the changes within the brain that may explain the reduction in stress and other health-promoting effects of support. The lead researchers were Tristen Inagaki, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh and Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Participants were asked about whether they gave or received support—for example, had “someone to lean on” or “looked for ways to cheer people up” when they were feeling down. Consistent with previous studies, “Both receiving and giving more support were related to lower reported negative psychosocial outcomes,” according to the authors.

The researchers then performed a series of neuroimaging tasks to explore how brain areas involved in stress-, reward-, and caregiving- related activity were affected by giving versus receiving social support. All three areas studied showed brain activation that correlated with individual differences in giving support, but not receiving it. For example, while performing a stressful mental math task, participants who reported giving the most support had reduced activation in brain areas related to stress responses. In contrast, receiving a lot of support was unrelated to activation in stress-related regions.

Giving higher levels of support was also linked to increased activity in an area of the brain that functions as part of the reward system during an “affiliative” task in which subjects looked at pictures of loved ones, and during a “prosocial” task, in which subjects had a chance to win money for someone in need.

The findings question the conventional idea that the health benefits of social support mainly reflect received support. “At the level of the brain, only support giving was associated with beneficial outcomes,” according to Inagaki, Eisenberger, and co-authors. They believe that giving support might improve health by “reducing activity in stress- and threat-related regions during stressful experiences.”

Giving support might avoid the sometimes-harmful effects of receiving support—for example, if it doesn’t match the person’s preferences or leaves him or her feeling indebted. “Giving support, on the other hand, allows an individual to control when and how support is given…[and] may result in more effective stress reduction,” the researchers wrote.

Taken together, the findings are consistent with the overall health benefits of social support for mental and physical health, but also suggest that giving support may be at least as important as receiving it. 

This article was adapted from information provided by Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

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