Culture and Health Psychology: Insights from a Socio-Cultural Perspective

Given the positive effects of social support seeking on physical well-being in the form of reduced levels of depression or anxiety during stressful times (Fleming, Baum, Gisriel & Gatchel, 1982), positive adjustment to a series of diseases such as cancer (e.g., Stone, Mezzacappa, Donatone & Gonder, 1999), and faster recovery speed from illness (e.g., House, Landis & Umberson, 1988), the finding that individuals of Asian origin tend to seek less social support than their European American counterparts may raise concerns. Research, however, shows that while Asian groups tend to avoid explicit patterns of social support seeking that involve the disclosure and sharing of stressful events typically adopted by individuals in Western cultures, they benefit from implicit social support. Implicit social support can involve actions such as merely thinking about close others or spending time and doing activities with friends without disclosing the stressor. Thus it refers to the emotional comfort that one can attain from relationships without discussing problems caused by stressful events and thus is unlikely to raise potential concerns about their relationships (Kim et al., 2008).

This interaction between cultural group and form of social support has been shown in a number of studies, including one demonstrating the beneficial effects of culturally appropriate forms of social support and the harmful effects of culturally inappropriate forms of social support at the physiological level (Taylor, Welch, Kim & Sherman, 2007). Asian Americans experienced lower levels of cortisol, a hormone usually referred to as the "stress hormone" as it is secreted in higher levels during body’s response to stress, during an acute laboratory stressor when they sought implicit rather than explicit support, whereas European Americans experienced lower cortisol levels when they sought explicit rather than implicit support. An online diary study shows that European Americans reported using explicit social support in coping with their daily stressors to a greater extent than do Koreans; Koreans reported using implicit social support to a greater extent than do European Americans (Kim et al., 2008). These findings point to the importance of exploring what social support means and its effects in different cultural groups.

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