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How To Help Someone Who’s Stressed Without Giving Them More Stress

When trying to help someone who's feeling stressed, your best intentions can lead to more aggravation. Here’s what to remember.

Woman in bathtub looks at her partner who is resting arm again tub
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So, your partner is stressed. Maybe their boss is coming down on them. Maybe they’re worried about about your family coming for Thanksgiving. Maybe they’re just stressed because life is stressful. No matter the reason, they’re feeling the pressure. You want to support them because of course you do. But you want to do it the right way. That is, without making them more stressed. What’s the best way to help?

First, here’s something to remember: Thanks to thousands of years of evolution, stress can spread like wildfire. When we see people under stress, our brains unconsciously respond as if danger is near and a number of physiological alarms are set off. Our hearts beat faster, we go flush and our limbic system prepares our bodies to respond by triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.

“We're social beings and if we see someone else in a stress response, we take that on and perceive possible danger,” says Nathalie Maggio, a therapist at Coastal Therapy and Wellness in California.

Responding to another person’s stress becomes even trickier when the stressed-out person is our partner. Seeing someone close to us under stress amplifies our response since we’re not only automatically responding to perceived danger, we’re feeling empathy. “We don't want the other person to hurt, which causes stress within us,” she says. “Especially if we’re uncomfortable around feelings, emotion, stress or bad at handling stress.”

But as contagious as stress can be, self awareness and presence of mind offer fairly reliable immunity. We’re saying “fairly reliable” because people respond to stress in different ways, which means there’s no surefire one-size-fits all solution for dealing with a stressed-out loved one. In terms of the best practices for responding to stressed-out partners, therapists say simple steps like paying attention to body language, active listening, and planning ahead can often provide effective treatment for stress — or at least prevent it from growing into an ongoing household pandemic. Here are some pointers to remember.

1. Address Their Stress Early

Most people don’t come to a boil all at once. When it’s your partner, you probably know the warning signs that their temperature is rising. Maggio says early intervention is best. “If they're already at a boiling point, it's going to be harder to get through to them,” she says. “Our rational brain is out the window in a tense high stress state.” Do your best to alleviate your partner’s stress before it begins. This is why healthy communication is a must.

2. Prep Yourself First

Put on your own oxygen mask first. Chances are, you’ve heard this phrase 1,000 times now as far as the importance of self-care and -awareness. It’s worth remembering, and the principle applies to stressful situations, too. You don’t want to be purely reactive to your partner’s stressful state of mind. It won’t help them. In fact, seeing you tense up is likely to make them more tense — and it’s not fair to you. So take a minute to look inward. Are you in a proper headspace where you feel comfortable? Take some deep breaths. Calm yourself down. Do what you need to do.

3. Use Open And Welcoming Body Language

Depending on the relationship, Maggio says physical touch can be an effective tool for defusing stressful situations. “It can be good to use physical touch if we're in a good place with our partner,” Maggio says. “That can be soothing and helps us use what we know about hormonal response for stress reduction because it releases oxytocin, which can be very helpful in reducing stress.” Start small. Gestures as simple as holding a partner's hands or putting our hand on their lap or their shoulder while you talk can be very effective.

4. Validate Validate Validate

When we see that our loved one is stressed out, our instinct can be to tell them not to worry about it. This intention comes from a good place but it’s unlikely to be successful and will likely lead to the stressed party feeling frustrated and alone because it feels as though you’re discounting or invalidating their feelings.The biggest thing for all relationships, but especially for couples, is to validate that feeling,” says New York couples therapist Mosha Moeller. “If they say they're stressed, acknowledge it and say, ‘I get why you would feel stressed out. It makes sense. It must be so difficult.’”

5. Ask Questions Without Making Assumptions

When your partner is stressed out, you have to be careful about your questions. “It’s a bad idea to ask them if they're stressed out or to say they look stressed,” Moeller says. “No one wants to hear that.” People know how they’re feeling and having someone point it out is almost certain to make it worse. Maggio says that rather than assuming we know how our partner feels or what’s causing them to feel that way, it’s best to ask open ended questions like “Is something going on?” or “Hey, you seem a bit different.” This approach keeps your partner from feeling like they’re being attacked — remember, stress gets in the way of rational thinking — and gives them room to express the problem as they are seeing and feeling it.

6. If You’re Not Getting Anywhere, Take a Break

Let’s say you’re midway through your conversation with your stressed out spouse and despite your best efforts, the situation is escalating. Moeller says it’s okay to take a break from the conversation, provided you’re clear that you’re not blaming your partner. If they need some space you can say ‘let's take a break,’” he says. “You don't want to say ‘you look like you need some space’ because that’s putting blame on another person.

7. Give Them Room to Solve their Own Problems

When people are stressed out, they don’t necessarily want someone to jump in and solve their problems, which can be a tough thing for husbands in particular to understand.

“We socialize men to become the fixers and the doers,” Maggio says. “And it's really hard in that moment when we feel like this is all we have to bring and what we must do as the male in a relationship.”

Instead, it’s more effective to figure out ways to support your partner as they solve the problem themselves. Maggio suggests asking questions like “what do you need” and “what can I do” and to be patient. “Because most likely they're just gonna need you to listen,” she says. “That part is most likely gonna be needed before you can get into problem solving together.”

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The good news about stress is that it doesn’t last forever. The bad news is that it will happen again. In the quiet moments that come after the stress has crested, find a comfortable setting, open up lines of communication and make a plan for dealing with the next flare up of stress.

“This isn’t something you should do right in the stress moment,” Maggio says. “But later, have a conversation with your partner and ask ‘what can I do when you're stressed’? Or ‘what are some good times for us to talk about it’?” The more you take time to actively understand what they need from you during these times, the more helpful you can be.