Whatever you want to call it, knowing and connecting with other people with asthma is important—whether that’s “patient to patient” “peer to peer” or simply “person to person”. Formal groups of people in similar situations connecting with one another are often known as “support groups” or “self-help groups”, as I’ve recently learned. January is Self-Help Group Awareness Month (at least in the UK!). Recently, I’ve been involved in conversation with many people about how they feel regarding social support from other patients (or in some cases, other parents) is important to them, and the value they place on these interactions.
What is Social Support?
Social support is simply described as a network of people—whomever they may be, family, friends or colleagues, for example—who formally or informally provide assistance with a variety of needs a person has (whether this has to do with chronic disease or not!). These needs may include supporting emotional or spiritual health, providing physical help with tasks, or providing financial assistance.1 Each person’s social support system will vary greatly and depend on the person’s individual developmental level, life situation, and needs—for instance, at different points in time it is more common to receive social support from a parent, others a child, and others yet, a friend.1 Support groups are often people who come together to share common circumstances and provide this social support—usually in the form of emotional support through conversation and camaraderie. More and more support groups, though, are informal and don’t feature the “circle of chairs” support group can often bring to mind. For example, vibrant online communities exist for an ever-growing number of subpopulations, even on social networks like Twitter alone, or meeting via conference call or web conference platform to connect people who live in rural areas, or in rare disease communities.
Personally, I like the term “self-help group”—while the self-help section of the bookstore may to some seem a bit unconvincing, it is active. It means that a person wants to engage and change their world or how they perceive their world. Sites like Asthma.net, which connect those of us with asthma to stories, information, discussions, and people that help them feel understood. Through social support groups, we learn that we are not alone in our circumstance and that other people are alongside us for the journey. Social support is also important for stress reduction: having others to share our experiences, concerns, frustrations or even fears with, can be immensely helpful to sorting through our thoughts, receiving feedback, or making decisions. A high degree of social support can often reduce incidence of mental health problems like depression in patients who have experienced trauma, be that a medical event like a heart attack.1 Conversely, a low or insufficient social support network has been studied to lead to—not just in those with heart disease—higher heart rate and blood pressure, and greater response to lab-induced stress tests1, indicating a lower level of adaptation and a greater general “stress response”.
For those of us with asthma, we know that stress can be a major contributor when it comes to asthma control. This is why it’s important to consider how we can decrease our stress levels, and understand how to let others provide support to us—no matter how strong and independent we are!
When we want to see change in the worlds, we know that we are stronger together—for instance, think of how petitions can have impact. However, the same is true when we want to see change in ourselves or the circumstance we are in—or if we just want to know that someone is there standing beside us who just “gets it”. Building a social support system is important, no matter how long you have had asthma for—maybe you have one and don’t realize it. But if you’re reading this and don’t have a support system of people who you can chat with once in awhile about asthma, or who can help out when things get rough, well, maybe you ended up here because you’re looking for that and it’s time to do some thinking on who, exactly, makes up your support team—even if they’re just like tech support on standby.
Because unlike a computer where tech support often will tell you to “turn it off and on again”, that’s not an option with troubleshooting life with asthma!