How To Assist Someone Who Is Battling Emotional Distress

Tips for friends, family, or other support persons…

The tears stung my eyes and before I knew it, puffiness consumed my face. I could feel a ping in the pit of my stomach, as if someone jabbed a knife right inside of me. I doubled over, cupping my face with my hands, as if I were trying to create a barrier between my intense sadness and the outside world. Unfortunately, there was no hiding, no escaping the fact that I had a full-blown melt down just in time for an audience of no less than three. I wanted to hide under a rock.

The inevitable curiosity followed, piqued by my abrupt and seemingly fatuous public display of dysphoria. “What’s wrong, Christine?” “Are you okay?”. I hid behind my well-practiced illusive half smile. “I’m fine”. But I wasn’t fine. I couldn’t let them know the truth, I just needed them to be there for me.

Some people insist on having their questions answered. When someone cries, witnesses often feel like they need to know why in order to assist. That is fine, if the one doing the crying is willing to tell. Sometimes, though, telling is hard to do. Especially in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, telling is not an option.

Conventional wisdom says knowledge is power. Knowledge of a death or tragic loss cues sympathy, empathy and comforting words, such as “I’m sorry for your loss”. Knowledge of a breakup or romantic heartache cues assistance with moving on in a healthy way, words to boost the ego, offering companionship, and perhaps offering a friendly gesture, such as a girls/guys night out. So, what can be done to console a friend, loved one, or even a stranger, without fully comprehending what is occurring and why? Well, A LOT, actually.

Think about a time when you were extremely sad. Maybe your dog died, maybe you just lost your job, or maybe you suffer from depression. Whatever the case may be, try to think about what would have been comforting during that time. Some people need to be alone and that’s okay, too. But in this case, try to think about what you would want from a friend or loved one.

Since emotional setback is kind of my forte, in a way, my husband is in tuned to what I want and need from him. I can only imagine his frustration prior to having a plan, as I sense that he feels responsible for resolving whatever is ailing me at the time. What I need is likely to look different from what you need, but here are some universal, generic tips.

  1. You don’t need to say anything magical. People struggle with this one. I have noticed that a lot of people have a dire need to fix, diffuse, and resolve problems. In order to do that, they feel they need to say or do the perfect thing. In the case of not knowing the cause of distress, these people feel like their hands are tied. The truth is, people in distress aren’t looking for a magic phrase that fixes their problems. They are simply looking for words like, “I’m here for you” or “I’ve got you, boo”. Either way, lending a shoulder to cry on, a steady arm to grab onto, and a genuine concern is enough.
  2. Don’t pry. When I am visibly upset, I am fully aware that you are not going to buy my “I’m fine” nonsense. I say it anyways, hoping you won’t ask again. Some people insist on getting an honest answer, but sometimes that makes it worse. Don’t get hung up on prying me for answers.
  3. Ask what you can do. There is something refreshing about knowing I have support, if I need it. Showing someone you genuinely care by inquiring what you can do to help or how you can relieve the distress is very powerful.
  4. Space is important, if it is wanted. We all cope with emotions in unique ways. Some people are comforted by the presence of another person. Others would rather have some space. My husband would rather I give him space when he is upset, knowing I will be there when he is ready. I respect that, even though I personally enjoy the opposite.
  5. Silence is okay, too. Sometimes, just having someone there is sufficient. Words don’t always have to be the answer, especially when the “right” words are tough to find. I can’t express enough how powerful a hug, or a hand on my hand, can be during a time of distress. Simple gestures of physical touch and/or physical closeness can speak louder than words.

Navigating social interactions, especially those muddled by intense negative emotion, can be challenging. Remembering these tips can be beneficial to yourself and to those with whom you interact. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to mitigate others’ struggles, but these simple guidelines have proven beneficial and provide a road map, of sorts, to being a good friend, spouse, parent, or other supporting role.

When the tears are long dried up and my thoughts are rational again, I appreciate the realization that I have a support system. Even if I am a pain, and insist on putting up my defenses, the people closest to me sure know how to help when needed!

Until next time,