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Social Support Important for Working Moms

Published March 16, 1996 | Updated January 20, 2016

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Duke Health News919-660-1306

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Researchers at Duke University Medical Center say the collective stress from marriage, parenting and working -- a combination shown to trigger adverse health effects in women -- can be reduced if women participate in structured social support programs.

The scientists' conclusion is based on a study comparing two treatment modes to determine which boosted levels of social support among working women.

"Social support is well-recognized as an important buffer against all kinds of stress," said Dr. Redford Williams, director of behavioral research at Duke and lead investigator of the study. "Since working married moms have the highest levels of stress, as measured by consistently elevated levels of stress hormones, our research supports the theory that improved social support can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in this high-risk group."

The study findings were prepared for presentation Saturday at the Fourth International Congress of Behavioral Medicine in Washington. The research was funded by a four-year grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

In the study of 98 working women at a Durham, N.C., corporation, the researchers found that married mothers significantly boosted their levels of social support by attending weekly, support-group-based training sessions on stress management. Each session allotted time for women to share solutions to everyday problems.

The other treatment mode -- weekly educational lectures (without the social support) on the harmful effects of stress -- and a control group that received no intervention did not increase social support among any of the women. Researchers measured social support by administering detailed questionnaires.

The women who benefitted the most from social support were married mothers. Single women and women without children did not increase their social support, possibly because their stress levels already were lower or because they were less isolated from the beginning, Williams said.

"Married women with children are less likely to have time for outside social contacts because of family demands," Williams said. "It's likely they have less opportunity to develop and maintain the kinds of social support that would help them reduce their stress."

Williams said the Duke study is the first randomized, clinical trial to demonstrate a significant increase in social support among married moms via support-group-based training sessions. Similar studies conducted elsewhere have established a relationship between social support and improved health.

However, the Duke support group sessions did not reduce negative emotions that typically accompany high stress levels, including depression, anger and anxiety. The researchers speculate there may be a delayed improvement in negative emotions that does not surface until months after the sessions have ended.

"We plan to follow up with these same women to determine if they have a reduction in negative emotion as time elapses," said Williams, whose colleagues include John Feaganes, Edward Suarez, John Barefoot, Linda Luecken, Nancy Middleton and James Blumethal.

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