Social support has been touted as a magic pill of sorts when it comes to making healthy lifestyle change. Social support, whether from a group or individual, has been shown to reduce the psychological and physical consequences of stress, support behavior change, and may even improve immune function.
It seems logical that if we have people around us who are supportive of what we are trying to do, it is easier to succeed. This plays out in almost every “behavior” from kids doing their homework to adults quitting smoking. It seems logical, and yet, often our tendency as humans is to retreat from others and “go it alone” when we face a challenge. Our culture, after all, rewards rugged individualism and independence.
We praise kids who don’t ask for a lot of help and are independent, and adults who “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”. When we face a personal barrier or challenge, our tendency is to retreat from others, not to reach out and expose our weakness.
But science tells us that we not only do better at surviving in tough circumstances, but we are more likely to thrive when we have social support. This can be a network of two or twenty, but it is crucial we find other humans with whom we feel free to be ourselves, and to ask for help and find accountability and reinforcement of our values.
We have designed a society that pulls us away from each other rather than providing the cohesiveness of more traditional societies. There are good things about this type of “progress”, but our health and wellbeing suffer from isolation. From the way we design our sprawling suburbs to create dependency on longer commutes, individual vehicles, and less community oriented living, to the trend of living far away and separately from extended family (not as prevalent in the Valley as other places, but common nonetheless) our living is less and less communal.
As we age we become more and more isolated which makes finding positive social support a real challenge.
I recently attended a class for people with type 2 diabetes. Many were referred because they don’t have health insurance and are struggling to control their condition due to challenges they face with making lifestyle changes needed to control diabetes. The course is a series of 6 weekly classes, but many of the individuals have been coming for months and repeat the series of classes over again.
They say they find it a safe space to talk about their struggles, and to help others understand the disease, which helps them stay the course. “I live alone and thought I wanted it that way. But it makes it hard to eat right and keep myself on track with exercise. I don’t have much money and have to make choices about getting my medication or eating some days. I have learned through these classes that it’s not easy for other people either.
Hearing from the lady over there that she has to take care of her kids and her mother and work on a fixed income, makes me realize I don’t have it so bad and heck, if she can do it so can I.”
The lessons and activities during the class seem simple enough, like you wouldn’t need to hear them over and over, but the nodding heads and shared experiences are what people come back for. At one point a woman shares her struggles to check her blood sugar every day, because she can’t afford the diabetic supplies needed and she hates needles. As tears roll down her face, a lady next to her gently pats her arm.
An older gentleman talks about after he was released the third time from the hospital with complications from diabetes, he had to stop being macho and eat the healthier food his wife made for him.
The men nod their heads in agreement. Many of the class participants linger after it is over, even though it finishes at 8:00 pm on a weeknight. The supportive environment is palpable, and for this group of individuals, you can tell they enjoy being together. When I ask one young man why he keeps coming back, although he finished the classes several months ago, he says, “It just helps me knowing there are other people going through what I am, and I also know if I fall off track I come here and I’m not going to make so many excuses!”
After the class I approach a big man in his late 50’s with cowboy boots and calloused hands that look like they’ve worked hard all his life. He was quiet during the class, but definitely paying attention. “When I got sick and went to the hospital I lost my job. I had separated from my wife and thought I liked it that way — on my own no body telling me how to live. But now that my diabetes is making me sick I realize I can’t just keep being alone. I hear this other guy (pointing to someone else in class), just like me, saying he goes walking and tries to eat less bread and tortillas and I say to myself, man, you can get up and walk too!
It just helps to have people who are going through the same thing and I see it in their face that they understand what I’m going through. When I have to answer the questions and share my story with the new people in the class, I go home and say man, now I have to do what I just said!”
Often that’s what we need, more than diets or gym routines or websites to keep us healthy and on track. But it’s not always easy to find others who can support us. Reach out and be the person who admits they need support. Find others who will encourage you by being the one who encourages others. Invite a family member, coworker or neighbor to walk or share a healthy meal.
Participate in community events, find a church or class where you can meet people. Get off the coach and out into the world with others, because finding that social support will make the difference. Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).
For some opportunities for free classes and groups in the community, check out the following Facebook pages: Salud y Vida; The Challenge; and Tu Salud Si Cuenta.