Social Relationships Affect How Your Body Responds to Stress
Understanding who buffers us from stress at various ages could improve health.
Posted March 13, 2023 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Positive social relationships can positively impact our mental and physical health, possible due to a phenomenon called social buffering.
- Parents, friends, and romantic partners may lower our body's responses to stress, though their effectiveness differs by developmental stage.
- Adolescents may have more difficulty getting biological benefits from social relationships than adults and children.
- Future research is needed to understand who may be effective social buffers of stress for adolescents.
If you’ve ever felt calmer or less stressed when in the presence of a loved one, you have experienced the phenomenon psychologists call social buffering, which is the ability of close social partners to reduce biological responses to stress.
We know from decades of research that social relationships can have immediate effects on our brains and biology. Humans are a very social species, and in general, your brain finds social interaction rewarding. In fact, interacting with others activates similar brain pathways as other rewarding things like money, drugs, and food.
That doesn't mean that social interaction is harmful in the way that problematic drug use or gambling is harmful. Instead, it means that we are motivated to interact with other humans, and especially our loved ones, because it makes us feel good.
One study showed that when adults interact with their spouse or family members, blood pressure is lower than at other times of the day, so social interactions may calm your cardiovascular system almost immediately. In adults, preparing for a stressful task with their best friend lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol that your body produces compared to preparing for a stressful task alone.
Too much cortisol can lead to a suppressed immune system, greater cardiovascular and metabolic risk, and changes in the brain. As a result, the ability of our loved ones to buffer excess cortisol is one of the reasons we think that social relationships are so good for health.
Recent research has investigated whether social buffering operates in babies, children, and teens in the same way that it does in adults. We know, for example, that already in the first year of life, a baby’s caregiver can buffer increases in the stress hormone cortisol when the baby is getting their vaccines if they have a secure attachment to their caregiver (Gunnar, 2017).
Before puberty, children randomly assigned to prepare with a parent before a stressful public speaking task show no increases in cortisol compared to children who prepare with a stranger, who show expected increases in cortisol levels. However, by the mid-point of puberty, parents are no longer effective buffers of the cortisol response for teens (Hostinar et al., 2015; Doom et al., 2015).
To test whether friends may take over as social buffers for teens when parents are no longer effective, we randomly assigned teens to prepare for the public speaking task with a best friend or a parent (Doom et al., 2017). We were surprised to find that teens who prepared with their friend actually had even higher levels of cortisol than the teens who prepared with a parent.
We think that this increased stress response may be due to teens’ tendency to be self-conscious around their friends and worry about what their friends might think of them. We don’t really know who can be helpful for adolescents, so we are currently testing whether siblings might be effective social buffers for children and teens, with support from the Mental Research Institute for this study. We know that teens are at a greater risk for developing mental health problems, though we don’t know whether the loss of parents and failure of friends to be social buffers might be contributing to this increased risk.
What are the main takeaways of this research on social buffering?
- We know that romantic partners and friends can buffer stress responses for adults, which is likely one reason that positive social relationships are great for health. When you’re feeling stressed, reach out to someone you love, as it will likely have positive benefits for your mental and physical health.
- Social buffering by caregivers is already present in infancy and continues until the mid-point in puberty, which emphasizes the importance of promoting positive caregiver-child relationships to protect infants and children from potential stressors in their daily lives.
- We don’t yet know who may be effective social buffers of biological stress responses for teens. However, we do know that there are many mental health benefits and even long-term benefits to cardiovascular health from positive relationships with caregivers in adolescence. As a result, it is still extremely important to support stable and loving relationships between teens and their caregivers.
Doom, J. R., Hostinar, C. E., VanZomeren-Dohm, A. A., & Gunnar, M. R. (2015). The roles of puberty and age in explaining the diminished effectiveness of parental buffering of HPA reactivity and recovery in adolescence. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 59, 102-111.
Doom, J. R., Doyle, C. M., & Gunnar, M. R. (2017). Social stress buffering by friends in childhood and adolescence: Effects on HPA and oxytocin activity. Social neuroscience, 12(1), 8-21.
Gunnar, M. R. (2017). Social buffering of stress in development: A career perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 355-373.
Hostinar, C. E., Johnson, A. E., & Gunnar, M. R. (2015). Parent support is less effective in buffering cortisol stress reactivity for adolescents compared to children. Developmental science, 18(2), 281-297.