In last month’s blog topic, I wrote about optimism and its role in our immune system. I want to pick up on a theme I mentioned and take it a little further. In my post entitled Are Optimists Healthier? (you can read the entire article here), I talked about the downsides of optimism.
The Downsides to Always Looking for the Upside
One downside of optimism is that optimists can sometimes do such a great job of being optimistic that their friends, family and other supports mistakenly assume they are coping just fine and don’t need their help. This is a downside, because they do need help, support and love. Not only can it be frustrating for them, but it can have negative health consequences when they don’t get the support they need.
A second downside to optimism is that an optimist can be so focused on feeling and expressing optimism; they suppress their true emotions.
The Benefits of Social Support
Let’s look at the two downsides to optimism listed above and how social support can counter those.
In a small study published in 2013, researchers found that emotional suppression was deadly (1). In a cohort of 729 people, which was followed for 12 years, there were 111 deaths in the group. What the researchers found was that the higher the scores of emotional suppression were associated with greater risk of death including cancer death.
Emotional support and love involves two aspects. You need to first disclose your feelings and then your support person(s) need to help you to process these feelings. Health benefits result when you feel safe and can express your emotions.
In order for this to work, you need to disclose your emotions to the right support person. If you talk to someone who tends to give advice and then gets frustrated with you when you don’t take their advice, then I don’t think this person is going to be much help to you. A support person must be a good listener above all else and then be a sounding board for your ideas, fears and other feelings.
In a clinical trial to test the effects of social support on cancer recurrence and death, researchers at Ohio State University randomly assigned whether newly diagnosed breast cancer patients would receive social support or not (2). The trial was called the Stress and Immunity Breast Cancer Project (SIBCP).
227 patients with stage II or III breast cancer were enrolled in the study. The control group of the study received an assessment only, while the treatment group received an assessment plus the social support intervention.
The social support intervention was conducted in groups of 8 to 12 patients with two clinical psychologist leaders. It included relaxation training, positive ways to cope with stress and cancer-related difficulties (e.g., fatigue), methods to maximize social support, and strategies for improving health behaviors (diet, exercise) and adherence to cancer treatments. A total of 26 sessions (39 therapy hours) were delivered over 12 months.
While the intervention lasted for the first 12 months after diagnosis, the patients were followed for an average of 11 years. During this time 62 patients experienced a recurrence of their cancer. Did the intervention of relaxation training, positive ways to cope with stress, methods to maximize social support and strategies to improve health behaviours make a difference? Yes, here’s how:
Those who received the intervention had a 45% reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence. Those that did have a recurrence had a lower risk of death from that recurrence. In addition, those that had the intervention were able to overcome their negative mood brought on by their diagnosis and reported more social support from their families. The intervention group also had significantly greater immune system measurements.
Bottom Line for Social Support
While optimism is a good long-term strategy for cancer patients, it should be coupled with a safe disclosure and processing of your true feelings. Secondly, don’t be so optimistic that you turn away or fail to seek out social support. Social support has been shown to reduce your risk of recurrence, improve your mood and support your immune system!
(1) J Psychosom Res. 2013 Oct;75(4):381-5. Emotion suppression and mortality risk over a 12-year follow-up. Chapman BP1, Fiscella K, Kawachi I, Duberstein P, Muennig P.
Read the full study here
(2) Clin Cancer Res. 2010 Jun 15;16(12):3270-8. Biobehavioral, immune, and health benefits following recurrence for psychological intervention participants.Andersen BL1, Thornton LM, Shapiro CL, Farrar WB, Mundy BL, Yang HC, Carson WE 3rd.
Read the full study here