08/12/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Online Support: The New Virtual Chicken Soup

Are the uplifting messages and advice of online friends becoming a regular part of the proverbial "chicken soup" that can heal an ailment?

As far back as the late 1990s with the start of CaringBridge, where people virtually offer subscribers updates on their health challenges or those of loved ones, social media sites are increasingly a place where people ask for and share love, concern, appreciation, and even advice.

I have been struck by how people I know on Facebook (some I haven't seen for years and even decades) are telling stories of their health circumstances, or their caregiving for others in crisis. The outpouring of support along the journey and the uplifting feelings they report open the door for others to share as well as ask for help or positive wishes virtually.

Perhaps it is not surprising that people reach out for help when confronting a challenge or helping others who are. Self-help organizations have proliferated over the last few decades, and online support groups are available for people facing challenges. At the same time, people on social media sites such as Facebook can create their own support networks. In fact, one study found that Facebook users report significantly higher levels of support when compared with non-Facebook internet users.

Being one of over 1 billion members of Facebook, I asked a few of my Facebook friends if I could share a little about their journeys to illustrate the power of social media in providing connection and inspiration.

One Facebook friend I have not seen in several years, Wendy Wyatt, was struck with Bell's Palsy (a neurological condition that includes facial paralysis as one symptom) just before Thanksgiving. Reaching out to her Facebook friends at a time when even eating, let alone speaking, was a challenge, she kept us posted regularly. In one long update about a month after this transformative life event, she shares: "I'm grateful for so many things ... For friends who've been so incredibly gracious giving me rides, bringing me meals and sending me healing energy and prayers ... So many of you knew others who'd been afflicted and gave me hope for my recovery!"

Support, a powerful element of healing, was also key for Joan Lipkin. She is a writer and director who divides her time between St. Louis and New York City where she and her brother, a scientist, relocated their parents from Chicago in 2007. Within a few years, both parents (now in their 90s) had health challenges. One night in 2012, while alone in the emergency room of a hospital where her father was being admitted, amidst her own agony and that of others, Joan notes, "I felt so dispirited by the conditions, not just for my father, but for everyone, that I posted something. I was trying to understand how it could have come to this, that our health care system would be so fractured and that I would spend the night watching over my father and sitting next to a mop. A close friend read my post and texted me back. It got me through the night."

Before long, Joan was posting regularly. After another incident where her father was hospitalized, Joan was flooded with supportive messages on Facebook: "I was reminded that other people had gone through something similar or perhaps were facing this now and that gave me a sense of community, especially since I was at a hospital in a city where I don't usually live..."

Increasingly, various forms of online engagement impact even the most somber of occasions, such as honoring death. An expert in media psychology and editor of the The Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology, Dr. Karen Dill-Shackleford shares about a virtual wake held for a student from Fielding Graduate University where she teaches: "[We] held what amounted to a kind of virtual wake -- a video chat with people from all around the country talking about our shared loss and the joy of having had Mike in our lives ... Several of us wrote eulogies for Mike and shared them with each other online."

Online support seems to be here to stay and growing. Joan Lipkin found that sharing her experiences opened the way for others to share: "It was as if we had a giant virtual water cooler. I imagine it helped them to write posts, and for many people to read my wall. Surely this counts for something and is a meaningful response and strategy for our contemporary times."

I had a déjà vu of Joan's experience in an emergency room when I found myself in that situation late one night with a family member. I messaged a few people who were online and posted about what was happening. After a few hours of sleep, the next morning I woke up to a wellspring of support. Did it feel as good as a real hug feels? Not quite, but it sure did warm my heart and help me realize that friends are friends, near and far, and that virtual "chicken soup" can feed the soul!

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