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La Salle News

February 23, 2021

La Salle prof’s study: Larger social networks create disproportionate stress levels for women

Image of La Salle University professor Meredith KneavelMeredith
A research study by Meredith E. Kneavel, Ph.D., an associate dean in La Salle University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, evaluated relationships between gender, social support, and friendship as predictors of stress.

While friendship can provide you with access to real-time counsel and compassionate support that lower stress levels, it’s also a complex relationship that requires reciprocation. A research study by a La Salle University professor found that this component of friendship is likely to produce higher levels of stress in women than those experienced by men.

A paper by Meredith E. Kneavel, Ph.D., an associate dean in La Salle University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor in the Department of Urban Public Health and Nutrition, explored differences in the levels of strain experienced by men and women and the factors that influence perceived stress. More specifically, she evaluated the relationship between gender, social support, and friendship and whether they act as predictors of stress.

Last summer, the journal Psychological Reports published Kneavel’s paper, “Relationship Between Gender, Stress, and Quality of Social Support,”

An expert on stress and stress effects, Kneavel previously has conducted studies on gender differences. One such study identified a greater willingness among female athletes than their male counterparts to report concussions sustained by themselves or teammates and greater changes in their and teammates’ indirect attitudes around discussing concussions.

For this study, Kneavel sought to learn more about the differences in stress experienced by men and women. She analyzed responses from study participants who completed a social support questionnaire with six questions ranging from the number and quality of friends in one’s social circle to deeper dives into the nature of those friendships. The survey challenged participants to identify those in their respective friend groups who can distract or relax them when they experience stress. The survey tasked participants with rating how well they felt supported by their contacts in taxing life scenarios.

“There are substantial differences between men and women, specifically with the utilization of mental support systems by women and how it affects their levels of stress,” Kneavel said.

Prior studies, Kneavel said, had found that women have larger social support networks and are subject to higher levels of stress than men. Her study certainly confirmed those findings.

“However, this study identified a clear interaction between social support and gender that predicts stress,” Kneavel said. “What I think is happening can be distilled like this: Women have larger and more supportive networks. On the surface, having so many people in your life who care deeply about you and your well-being is a good thing. However, as women expand their friend groups and networks, they are finding themselves more committed than ever to giving support that is reciprocal to the support they are receiving. It’s stress that is seemingly constantly compounding.”

Kneavel offered an example. “If you’re a woman who approaches a female friend about marital trouble or a struggle to advance professionally, that friend is likelier to return to you when confronted by similar stressors in her life. And the expectation is that you will provide similar outputs of support, as far as emotional and time investments, as one example.”

As social circles for women grow, with the addition of family members, friends, and colleagues, Kneavel said data provided a greater sense of the quality of reciprocal support they were receiving and, therefore, expecting to supply.

“Women have larger and more supportive networks. On the surface, having so many people in your life who care deeply about you and your well-being is a good thing. However, as women expand their friend groups and networks, they are finding themselves more committed than ever to giving support that is reciprocal to the support they are receiving. It’s stress that is seemingly constantly compounding.”
—Meredith E. Kneavel, Ph.D.

Currently, Kneavel is leading another project aimed at uncovering the existence of relationship between gender and stress with an added variable—stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To co-lead this study, she tapped two colleagues from La Salle’s Department of Psychology—Kelly McClure, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology department chair, and undergraduate program director, and Julie Hill, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology. McClure is an expert in stress and coping with cancer; Hill studies behaviors that affect adolescents’ and young adults’ health.

The team hopes to conclude the study by the end of 2021.

“It’s a replication and extension of the previous study, along with the exploration of stress from COVID-19,” Kneavel said. “I’ll be curious to learn more about the potential relationship between stress and gender with added factors like homeschooling, working from home, abstaining from travel, and distancing yourself from family.”

—Christopher A. Vito