Communication Currents

Providing Emotional Support That Facilitates Stress Recovery

February 1, 2015
Health Communication

Stress has been called the black plague of the 21stcentury. Currently, it is linked to all of the leading physical causes of death in the United States and is associated with the development of most major mental health problems. It also is the leading cause of long-term sick leave in the workplace, surpassing cancer, stroke, and cardiac issues.

One of the most common ways individuals cope with stress is to seek emotional support, which includes expressions of care, concern, assurance, and encouragement from a loved one. Yet, even well-intended support attempts may have a deleterious impact. Ineffective support can increase negative affect, stress, and anxiety, cause feelings of hurt, and decrease self-efficacy. By observing emotional support interactions between dating partners, our study sought to examine conditions under which emotional support leads to physiological stress recovery. The results revealed that dating partners can provide emotional support in ways that actually reduce stress hormones. The key is to understand the type of support your partner wants and what he or she expects from the support you provide.

Emotional support is an especially consequential form of supportive communication in relationships. Of all the ways relational partners can assist in times of distress, emotional support is generally the most desired and the greatest predictor of relationship satisfaction. When effective, it facilitates increased positive mood, decreased depression, improved cardiovascular function, lower incidence of infectious disease, and reduced stress hormones.

Research illustrates three key reasons that support attempts may fail to create positive outcomes. First, people vary in the particular types of support they find helpful. For example, receiving emotionally supportive messages when they are not the preferred form of support can exacerbate a stressful situation. Second, individuals develop expectations for support, and when emotional support falls short of these standards, comforting messages may be ineffective. Finally, the best intentions may go awry because the way in which support is conveyed can cause the receiver to feel belittled or incapable of handling his or her own problems. Accordingly, research suggests that support may be most effective when it is provided indirectly or so skillfully that it is not perceived as support by the receiver (i.e., invisible support). Thus, we hypothesized that emotional support should be most effective when it (1) matches the desired type of support, (2) is deemed adequate, and (3) is invisible.

In our study, we examined how the three conditions lead to physiological stress recovery after experiencing a stressful event. We focused on cortisol as a measure of physiological stress because it is one of the major stress hormones released when people experience a situation they perceive as threatening or harmful. Cortisol rises in response to a stressor and remains elevated in the blood until the individual has dealt with the stressor. Consequently, measuring cortisol (through saliva samples) at multiple times shows the extent to which an individual has a stress reaction to an event, how long the stress continues, and how long it takes for the individual to recover. Effective emotional support should shorten the length of time it takes for an individual to recover physiologically after a stressful event.

To test the conditions under which emotional support prompts faster cortisol recovery, we brought 103 dating couples into the lab to undergo a series of activities. One individual in the couple (the participant) completed a series of stressful tasks designed to initiate a physiological stress response. Following the tasks, the participant was given fabricated negative performance feedback. They were told they would need to talk to their partner about how the tasks and feedback made them feel. Then the partner was brought into the room and the couple engaged in an eight-minute conversation. Following the interaction, participants rated the support provided by their partners and their general preferences for emotional support. Third- party observers also watched videos of the interactions and rated the supportiveness of the partners. Saliva samples were collected before and after the interactions to assess changes in cortisol.

In general, our results validated two of the three conditions that improve emotional support effectiveness. Emotionally supportive communication alleviates stress more quickly when recipients generally value emotional support (i.e., matching) and when they evaluate the support they received as meeting their expectations or ideals for support (i.e., adequacy). Interestingly, we also found people who place less value on emotional support (i.e., reported a lower preference for emotional support) still benefited from receiving emotional support compared with individuals who didn’t receive support. The results suggest that although attempts at comforting are most effective when the recipients prefer emotional support over other types of support, providing emotional support is better than not for cortisol recovery.

Our results did not confirm the benefits of invisible support, which was measured as support that was observed by third-party raters, but not reported as having occurred by the receiver. Clearly identifying the supportive intentions and behaviors of a partner promoted, rather than attenuated, stress recovery. It is possible that visible, rather than invisible, support was most beneficial in our study because the recipients’ need for support was explicit and unambiguous. Under such conditions, when an individual is obviously seeking support, indirect or invisible support may be misunderstood or perceived as a lack of caring. Thus, greater research needs to be conducted on when invisible support is most effective for stress recovery.

The results also suggest that communication between dating couples may influence health and well-being. Elevated cortisol levels lead to wear and tear on the body that increases susceptibility to and severity of mental and physical illness. To the extent that emotional support provisions can shorten the duration of physiological stress, they should, over time, facilitate improved health outcomes. By providing support that matches desires and is perceived as adequate, dating partners not only can make loved ones feel better emotionally, but also alter their health in a positive way.

Collectively, our results underscore that, in general, responsive communication provides the most effective support to a dating partner. Romantic partners are more effective in facilitating stress recovery from acute, everyday stressors when their attempts are adapted to receivers’ preferences for emotional support and standards for level of supportiveness. Keeping in mind that providing emotional support when a partner is clearly distressed may be better for stress recovery than providing no support at all. Providing reassurance, encouragement, and explicit statements of validation and caring are important components of helping a loved one cope with life’s stress.

About the author (s)

Jennifer S. Priem

Wake Forest University

Assistant Professor

Denise H. Solomon

Penn State University