Examining the Nuances of Appraisals and Physiology in the Support Process

The transactional model of stress and coping (Lazarus & Folkmau, 1984) highlights the central role of appraisals in physiological responses to events. Primary appraisals of event valence, relevance, and severity influence the extent of physiological responses and whether arousal is adaptive or maladaptive. Appraisals of threat create distress, in which physiological stress responses have detrimental effects, whereas appraisals of an event as a challenge are associated with eustress, which is more adaptive. The theory of conversationally induced reappraisal (Burleson & Goldsmith, 1996) posits that effective emotional suppoxt can facilitate emotional and physiological improvement. Although the role of appraisals has been theorized to be central, little research has explicitly examined its role.

Ways in which support may reduce the negative effects of stress have been documented; however, greater research into eustress provides an avenue for advanced inquiry into how emotional support may influence appraisals in a maimer that facilitates positive outcomes. Support theoiy states that emotional support may function to facilitate stress recovery by prompting reappraisals of the problem or stressor (Burleson & Goldsmith, 1998). Recent research on appraisals of stress and arousal itself suggests that emotional support that helps distressed individuals reframe the stress response itself may facilitate more adaptive outcomes. For example, Keller et al. (2012) found that individuals who experience high levels of stress but do not appraise the stress as harmful had no ill effects on health. Jamieson et al. (2012) showed that reappraising arousal itself makes physiological and cognitive responses to stress more adaptive. Accordingly, a potentially fruitful venue for future research is to explore how emotional support messages can create eustress and facilitate reappraisal of the stress response itself to influence physiological responses and improve health outcomes.

Another potentially interesting avenue for research is to examine emotional support interactions, coping, and appraisals as a dyadic process. For example, according to the systemic transactional model of dyadic coping (Bodemnaim, 1995), couples engage in dyadic appraisals of stressors. In a relationship, the origin of a stressor can be individual, but the stressor also becomes part of the partner’s experience because the two individuals comprise an interdependent relationship (i.e., indirect dyadic stress). Alternatively, the stressor can be an event that directly affects both people in the relationship (i.e., direct dyadic stress); therefore, individuals engage in intrapersonal and dyadic appraisals of a situation.

The dyadic nature of appraisals has the potential to influence multiple parts of the support process. For example, Peters, Priem, and High (2017) found that congruence in partners’ appraisal of the severity of a stressor predicted a support provider’s motivation to produce a higher quality supportive message. Because we know that the message matters for physiological stress recovery, the appraisals of both individuals—not just the distressed individual—become important for understanding effective emotional support interactions. Furthermore, dyadic appraisals may influence emotional and physiological linking or contagion in ways that may have implications for message production and message effects in supportive interactions.

Research Directions with Older Populations and Longitudinal Data

Other areas for research should be engaged as well. For instance, scholars have proposed an increased focus on longitudinal research (Taylor et al., 2010), especially with specific demographics. For example, given the stresses of older age and the increased prevalence of illnesses such as cancer or dementia, social support may be of particular importance to the elderly population (Kim & Thomas, 2017). Furthermore, to the extent that long-established relationships may be lost over time as best friends and spouses pass away, the landscape of support in later years of life may be significantly different from that of more commonly studied (i.e., younger) populations. Examining the health effects of ongoing support and what the long-term effects of ongoing supportive relationships may be on both parties is also important (Faw, 2016).

Although some of this work has been done, examining the effects of various types of support, and looking at aging adults of differing socioeconomic strata, would be important extensions of the extant literature (Kim & Thomas, 2017). Furthermore, communication scholars can extend existing scholarship by utilizing more sophisticated measures of support than have been traditionally used in longitudinal multi-wave research. There may also be particularly interesting intersections with research on loneliness (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010) that would be particularly salient for older populations. Therefore, there are numerous new avenues for communication researchers to traverse with respect to support and physiology.

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