British Journal of Health Psychology

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Social support as a comfort or an encouragement: A systematic review on the contrasting effects of social support on cardiovascular reactivity

Purpose

The stress‐buffering hypothesis (Cohen & McKay, 1984, Handbook of psychology and health IV: Social psychological aspects of health (pp. 253–256). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum) suggests that one way social support enhances health is by attenuating cardiovascular reactivity (CVR) to stress. Research that has tested this hypothesis has reported inconsistent findings. In this review, we systematically reviewed those findings and proposed a dual‐effect model of social support and CVR as a potential explanation for the inconsistency in the literature. Specifically, we proposed that when participants are more engaged during a stressor, social support acts primarily as social comfort, attenuating CVR; and when participants are not engaged, social support acts primarily as social encouragement, elevating CVR.

Methods

We reviewed 22 previous studies that (1) empirically manipulated social support in a stressful situation, (2) measured CVR, and (3) tested a moderator of social support effects on CVR.

Results

Although a majority of studies reported a CVR‐mitigating effect of social support resulting in an overall significant combined p‐value, we found that there were different effects of social support on CVR when we considered high‐ and low‐engagement contexts. That is, compared to control conditions, social support lowered CVR in more engaging situations but had no significant effect on CVR in less engaging situations.

Conclusion

Our results suggest that a dual‐effect model of social support effects on CVR may better capture the nature of social support, CVR, and health associations than the buffering hypothesis and emphasize a need to better understand the health implications of physiological reactivity in various contexts.

What is already known on this subject?

According to the stress‐buffering hypothesis (Cohen & McKay, ), one pathway social support benefits health is through mitigating the physiological arousal caused by stress. However, previous studies that examined the effects of social support on blood pressure and heart rate changes were not consistently supporting the hypothesis. Some studies reported that social support causes elevations in cardiovascular reactivity (CVR) to stress (Anthony & O'Brien, ; Hilmert, Christenfeld, & Kulik, ; Hilmert, Kulik, & Christenfeld, ) and others showed no effect of social support on CVR (Christian & Stoney, ; Craig & Deichert, ; Gallo, Smith, & Kircher, ).

What does this study add?

  • When participants were in more engaging conditions, social support decreased CVR relative to no support.
  • When participants were in less engaging conditions, social support did not have a significant effect on CVR.
  • Provide an alternative way to explain the ways social support affects cardiac health.

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