It can be challenging to know what to say to someone who is stressed. And this year has left many of us more stressed than usual due to Covid-19.

How to comfort someone who is stressed?

1. Don’t dismiss their fears.

Whether you think your friend’s worries are sensible and well-founded or not, they are very real to them. So it’s important to avoid being dismissive or saying simplistic (albeit well-meaning) comments such as, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, ‘come on, be strong’, or ‘you’ll be fine’.

Be gentle and understanding. And remember that if you make them feel like they’re being silly, or your conversations turn combative, your friend or relative might not feel secure about discussing their worries with you.

2. Listen, a lot.

More than anything, initially at least, your friend will appreciate you listening, being patient and non-judgemental. They may never have opened up to anyone about their fears and thoughts.

After just hearing them out, you could both gain a better understanding of their stress if you ask good questions. ‘What has made you think that?’ or ‘When did you start feeling this way?’

But avoid ‘why’ questions which can lead to rabbit holes of self-blame.

If you can do so without it seeming contrived, reflect back and summarise what they say. So for example, ‘Do you mean that you’re really worried about x?’.

3. Help with solutions.

Stress, unlike anxiety, has a source. And the stress comes as your friend or loved one can’t see a way to handle an issue. If you can help them see ways forward, it can be tremendously helpful.

Note it’s important to ask permission first. “Did you want any help or advice or to do a brainstorm?”

If your friend is very stressed, they might simply be in the mood to vent, and it’s best just to offer that they contact you again if they want to brainstorm solutions.

Also remember that stress leaves people very sensitive and with low self-esteem. So when you do help them see a way forward, make sure to include the next step.

4. Point out their inner resources.

Again, stress lowers self-esteem. Soon enough we can have negative thoughts that we aren’t capable.

Remind your friend of the other times in life they faced similar stresses and got through them. Give exact examples.

And point out the skills they do have already. Perhaps gently remind them as well that delegating is also a skill.

5. Check in with them more often.

One of the most comforting things to someone dealing with a lot of stress is the knowledge that you are there for them, and that you will be understanding and supportive.

6. Encourage wellbeing activities.

Stress can trigger bad habits that make us more instead of less stressed. Things like alcohol and recreational drugs, for example, are a temporary escape that leave us tired and miserable the next day.

But we all have activities that leave us feeling energised and positive.

Remember that what works for you — arts and crafts, meditation— might not work for your friend. So try to encourage them to do what does, or suggest a variety of things you can do together and give them a choice.

5. Suggest ways that they can get support

Assuming your friend recognises that they might benefit from some help with their anxiety, there is professional support out there, from charities and self-help books to professional therapy (often available via video call). Gently suggest this might be something to consider, and help them look for ways to go about it.

Be sensitive, though, to their response. For example, there’s no point repeatedly sending articles on the subject of their fears to them if they dismiss everything, no matter how factual.

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Liat Hughes Joshi is a London-based journalist, author and commentator. She has written five parenting books including “How to Unplug Your Child” (Summersdale). Find her at @liathughesjoshi on Twitter and Instagram.

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