Toward a Biology of Social Support

Sally S. Dickerson, Peggy M. Zoccola and Emily Hooker

in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology

Second edition

Published in print July 2009 | ISBN: 9780195187243
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Toward a Biology of Social Support

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  • Social Psychology
  • Health Psychology



The presence of close, supportive ties to others can have a wide range of positive effects on health; certain biological processes may play a key role in linking positive social relationships to salubrious health outcomes. In this chapter, we review the research that connects the presence of strong, supportive social ties to positive physiological functioning, with an underlying emphasis on the implications for health and disease. Cross-sectional and prospective studies demonstrate that high levels of social integration and/or social support are associated with positive biological profiles (e.g., lower levels of neuroendocrine activity, better functioning of the immune system), whereas social isolation and loneliness can have detrimental effects on these parameters. Other research provides evidence for the stress-buffering hypothesis; social support exerts beneficial effects via a downregulation of stress responses, including dampened sympathetic and neuroendocrine activity. Conversely, deficient social relationships or social conflict has been linked with negative biological profiles. Emerging animal and human research suggests that oxytocin and endogenous opioids may underlie some of these physiological and health effects. Further elucidating the pathways through which social support could influence health outcomes could subsequently be used to develop theoretically sound interventions to optimize physiological functioning and health.

Keywords: psychoneuroimmunology; reactivity; social relationships; social support; stress

Article.  5645 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Social Psychology ; Health Psychology

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