Power of Social Support
Posted on March 27, 2015
I know most of you have seen Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point. Maslow believed that a human’s needs could be organized in terms of importance. The lower level needs must first be met, before putting energy and motivation into meeting needs further up the pyramid. Maslow stated that first people needed to meet their basic physiological needs to sustain life functions, such has having food and water. After that, safety needs become the focus, such as having shelter and protection against physical threats to human survival. Once physical and safety needs are met, people can focus on social needs and the human requirement to connect with others and create relationships. The final two steps address self-esteem and self-improvement.
Maslow’s Hierarchy has been a template for understanding human behavior and motivation for decades. Recently, neurobiology research into the structure of the brain is beginning to challenge a certain aspect of Maslow’s theory. The key finding is that the same parts of the brain that processes basic survival needs also processes the need for social connections (Rock, 2009). From a brain perspective, you could almost collapse the first three levels into one large basic needs level.
Why would the human need to connect be just as important as the need for food, water, and safety? Both now and in the distant past, connecting with other people was integral to survival. Historically, being alone meant vulnerability to hungry predators, enemies, and the elements. Even today this remains true.
Think about how you obtain food in today’s society. Throughout the early years of life, others help meet your basic needs. Most of us were lucky enough to have parents or caregivers that provided us with food, shelter, and a level of safety from harm. Another group of people educate and train us to have a certain skill set that allows us to eventually enter the job market, where we are hired by someone to perform a certain task. If we meet our boss’ expectations, we receive a financial reward for this work in the form of a paycheck. Another person either cashes this check for us, or deposits it into a bank account, turning a piece of paper into a usable currency. Then we go to the store, where a group of people sell you food that another group of people on farms produced, and yet another group transported to the store. Today, like thousands of years ago, we survive because we are part of a social and economic network of people who meet each other’s basic survival needs.
Social isolation causes us real pain and unfortunately, isolation is too common among traumatized clients. When scientists isolated mice who had been raised in a social group, those mice showed a physical decline almost exactly the same as mice who were deprived of food and water. While starving or dehydrated mice died more quickly, the mice who were socially isolated lost most of their hair and other physical capacities before they died. Human studies reinforce these findings and have shown that social isolation has a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health (Christakis & Fowler, 2009).
These studies demonstrate the importance of the social health of clients, especially those that have experienced past trauma. This returns me to the Alfred Whitehead’s quote mentioned in the attachment post: “Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.” Research backs up Whitehead’s quote by showing that everything from happiness to smoking to heart disease are determined in great part by who is in a person’s social network. People share the same behaviors and characteristics that are present in their social networks.
Traumatized clients often come into our services either isolated from others or in relationships that are abusive and harmful to their well-being. Just by connecting with our compassion and empathy, their social reality is changed. While we can play a critical and transformational role in clients’ lives, we need to strive to expand these connections to include healthy peers and others in the community. Support groups, AA/NA, peer advocates, therapeutic groups – these all expand the healthy energy clients receive from others. For many people recovering from past suffering, a key point in their post-traumatic growth process occurs when they receive more healthy energy and less abusive and depressed energy from their social interactions.
As the research above on social connections demonstrates, we experience the world through relationships and the energy we receive from others that we interact with on a regular basis. As helpers, we miss a key opportunity when we do not pay close enough attention to building social resources available to our clients. Food, shelter, and safety are obviously critical, but can do little to address the isolating/abusive social nature of trauma.
As you look at your resources and programs, think about whether you treat social needs as basic needs. Are there things you can identify that could improve social health of your clients?