We all come face-to-face with challenges—some trivial, some tragic—that throw us off balance. And while it’s not easy to stay resilient when things fall apart, watching a person you care about go through a crisis can be just as difficult. In fact, one of the most common questions we hear from our meQuilibrium community is, “My partner/child/sibling/colleague/parent/friend is struggling. How can I help?”
There’s no quick fix for recovery, but it is possible to help others adjust, heal, and grow when times get tough. With that in mind, here are five concrete ways to support a friend or loved one in distress:
1. Cultivate Calm
Help your loved one slow down their stress response and reconnect with the present moment by asking them to close their eyes and notice what’s going on around them: the sensation of their feet touching the ground, the weight of their hands in their lap, the quiet hum of an air conditioner or heater, and so on. You can also have them take five deep breaths or offer them a drink of water, which eases an upset stomach and dry mouth.
2. Listen with a Full Heart
When they’re ready to talk, be sure to do more listening than speaking: When someone is going through a tough time, often what they need more than anything is to be heard, so listening with empathy and without judgment is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
“A skilled, compassionate listener—who is not continually giving advice—is important,” says Lyn Prashant, Ph.D., F.T., a certified grief counselor and ‘former’ professor at UC Berkeley. And though it’s always well-intended, it’s usually best not to compare your friend’s experience to your own.
3. Ask Open-Ended Questions
When anxious thoughts are rattling around in our mind, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Simply naming our worries can bring some much-needed clarity, so instead of asking your friend yes or no questions, ask open-ended questions that will get them to think through and explain how they’re feeling.
“Be a sounding board,” says meQuilibrium Chief Science Officer and Co-founder Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. “Just listen. Ask the questions that will allow the other to talk about their anxieties. At the root of anxiety are thoughts about what could go wrong in the future, and when these future-threat thoughts are bouncing around our heads, they seem very real. Just giving those thoughts a voice lends an objectivity that helps us realize that some of our fears are unfounded.”
4. Stay in a Support Role
Prashant, a pioneer in what is known as integrative grief therapy, says it’s important to realize that it’s natural to want to fix others’ problems or take away their pain—but that’s not your job. Instead, ask your friend what they need. “I often ask somebody, ‘What is the hardest part of this?’ When do you feel you struggle the most?’” says Prashant.
Then, offer your assistance—the more specific, the better. “Let’s say you have a friend who has just gotten a cancer diagnosis,” Prashant continues. “You might say, ‘Research comes easily to me. Are there things that you want me to check on?’”
5. Practice Positivity
Once your loved one has found a place of calm, gently encourage them to shift their thinking to the positive. A question Prashant often asks her clients or students is, “What are the things you know that calm you and make you feel like yourself?” Your friend likely already has some go-to practices that reduce stress and anxiety, like running or listening to music. Or you could simply ask them to list three things they are grateful for—there is no wrong answer, and nothing is too small to qualify.
These simple practices should help ease your loved one’s pain (even if only for a moment) and, more importantly, your support shows them that they don’t have to go through it alone.
Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist and editor who writes about integrative medicine, sustainable agriculture, and wine for Food & Wine, Vogue, Fast Company, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @Hannahmw23.