The old adage that “It’s better to give than to receive” may well be true, according to new research published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. In this study, a multi-ethnic subset of 36 adults participating in a larger examination of the neural mechanisms of social support responded to questionnaires regarding their mood as it related to the giving and receiving of social support.
They also underwent a series of fMRI-assessed neuroimaging tasks that explored how brain regions that process stress, reward, and caregiving-related activity are impacted while undergoing a stressful task that involved completing math problems; an affiliative task in which participants viewed photos of friends or loved ones; and a computerized task in which they were asked to share raffle tickets with others.
Most studies of social support examine the health and psychological impact of receiving help from others. However, we know very little about the neural mechanisms of giving and how they may be related to one’s response to stress. In this study, participants were asked whether they receive support as well as give support to others. Results showed that both giving and receiving support were associated with lower levels of self-reported negative psychological outcomes including depression, sensitivity to rejection, perceived stress, and feelings of loneliness.
At the brain level, only giving support was associated with positive neurological outcomes. In particular, giving support was linked to lower threat-related brain activity in response to a stressful task, greater activation of reward circuitry while viewing images of close others, and higher levels of caregiving-related neural activity while engaging in pro-social behavior.
These results point to giving behavior as a potential buffer against stress. According to the authors of the study, this may be, in part, because we are able to control when and how we give support, empowering us with a sense of agency when we feel stressed or overwhelmed. This suggests that giving support may be just as important to our physical and psychological health as receiving it.
Tristen K. Inagaki, Kate E. Bryne Haltom, Shosuke Suzuki, Ivana Jevtic, Erica Hornstein, Julienne E. Bower, Naomi I. Eisenberger. The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2016.