*Military OneSource does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. The article below is intended for informational purposes only. Military OneSource can provide referrals to your local military treatment facility, TRICARE or another appropriate resource.
One of the best ways to feel more in control of your life is to develop a strong network of friends, relatives, co-workers and others you can count on for support. Research has shown that having a personal support network can make it easier to cope with many common sources of stress - from dealing with minor problems at work to recovering from major surgery. Most people have at least the beginnings of a personal network, and you can expand your network by reaching out to others and developing new friendships.
What is a personal support network?
A personal support network is a group of people you can depend on for help both on an everyday basis and in an emergency. To be effective, a support network usually needs to include all kinds of people - friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbors and others. Many people may be able to help in some situations but not others. So having a diverse network will make it more likely that, whatever your needs, you will be able to turn to someone who can help.
The advantages of having a personal support network
- Less stress - Your support network can ease your stress by providing many kinds of practical and emotional support - from bringing you homemade soup when you're sick to talking with you when you're feeling low.
- More enjoyment of life - Everybody needs both time alone and time with others, and a strong personal support network will help to ensure that you'll have companionship when you would prefer to share an activity with others.
- A stronger sense of belonging - You're less likely to feel lonely if you spend time with people who value and care about you, whether they are favorite cousins, former classmates, members of a military unit or fellow volunteers for a charity.
- Greater peace of mind - You'll have a stronger sense of security if you have people in your life whom you know would be willing to pick up a prescription for you or keep an eye on your home when you have to go away.
- More self-confidence - Having a support network doesn't just help you - it lets you help others, too. And even if you're doing fine, you may gain self-confidence from helping others who are still struggling with challenges you've overcome.
- Better health - Many studies have found that having strong ties to others can improve your health and even help you live longer.
Tips on strengthening your current network
The strongest personal networks are based on a mutual appreciation and desire to help. Their members give as much as they receive. So strengthening your network begins with being willing to go out of your way to help others.
Think about your current relationships. Are you giving others the kind of support that you would like to have or may need someday? If not, look for ways to start doing more for people who may need your help. Here are some tips:
- Keep in touch. Call, write or send emails or text messages frequently. If you don't keep in touch, you may not stay up to date on the kind of support that people in your network need. You may also find it harder to ask for support when you need it.
- Consider joining online networks that your friends and family enjoy. Online networks can strengthen your support system as long they don't replace other forms of communication. These sites let you see the news posted by your friends even if you post rarely or not at all. They can help you stay up to date on others' activities on days when you can't call, write or visit.
- Be loyal. Respect the confidences of people in your network and never spread information about them that may be hurtful or untrue. This will help to show them that they can trust you and talk honestly about their needs.
- Remember special days. Call or send a card on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other days that are important to people in your network. Keep in mind that even if you would prefer to ignore your own birthdays and some holidays, many people need extra support at these times.
- Have a positive outlook. People are usually more willing to support someone who tries to stay cheerful - even if he or she has many difficulties - than someone who is always complaining. When someone you know asks, "How are you?" try to say something positive before you talk about anything that's wrong.
- Limit the time you spend with negative people. Build your personal support network on a foundation of cheerful and optimistic people who make you feel good. Whiners and complainers will sap your energy. If you need to keep in touch with a friend or relative who drags you down, try sometimes to see the person in a group so that you don't become the sole focus of the negativity.
- Show family and friends that they are important to you. Return their calls and messages and respond to invitations promptly. Tell them frequently that you appreciate them. Even people who support you strongly may back off if they sense that you aren't interested in the relationship.
- Don't wait for people to tell you that they need support. Keep in mind that people may be reluctant to ask for help, especially if they know you have a busy life. If you learn that someone needs surgery, ask how you can help and be prepared to suggest what you could do. Lifelong relationships often begin with small gestures like these.
- Make time for face-to-face get togethers. Even if you prefer to communicate by phone, text message or email, others may be more willing to open up in a face-to-face conversation. So if you never or rarely see each other, you may not fully understand how you can help or have a chance to talk about your needs. If possible, have an annual get together, such as a barbecue or holiday brunch, that lets you connect with friends and relatives you haven't seen in a while.
- Thank people for their support. Say "thank you" often and remind people of things they did in the past that you appreciated. Make an extra effort to show your gratitude when people go out of their way to support you. Send a card, note, flowers or give a small gift.
- Plan ahead for times when you may need extra help. Talk with people in your network about any unusual needs you have or situations that may arise in your community, such as a blizzard, hurricane or other natural disaster. How could you support each other then?
Expanding your network to include new people
In addition to strengthening your current network, you may want to bring new people into your network. Some ways to do that include the following:
- Be open to relationships with a variety of people. Avoid assuming that people in your network need to share all your interests and values.
- Reach out. Take the first step to launch new relationships. If you keep running into someone you'd like to know, suggest that you have lunch or coffee. Rather than saying you'll call, be specific and set a date.
- Take part regularly in an enjoyable activity that involves others. Take a class, join a house of worship or get involved in a volunteer or professional organization. Check your local bookstore or library if you'd like to join a book club. Or, start a group, such as a Friday night movie club or a Sunday afternoon football group. The more you see people, the easier it will be to ask them for support, and for them to know what you need, too.
- Explore the Internet. Online relationships can't substitute for face-to-face conversations, but they may be helpful if you have a specific need your network can't meet or if you would prefer to talk about some issues under the privacy of a screen name. Many reputable social networking or other sites have forums, discussion groups or blogs (personal online diaries) for people with particular concerns. A good way to find legitimate sites is to search online for a national organization devoted to issues that concern you, such as coping with an unusual medical condition.
Having a strong personal support network can make your life easier while also showing you how much your support means to others. The best way to develop a network is to always give others as much support as you hope to receive.