How to support someone in distress or emotional pain.

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If you are supporting a loved one as they struggle with their mental health, it is quite possible that you feel completely inadequate. You don’t know how to fix it, you’re not sure what is the right thing to say. You want to make it all OK for them. But you can’t. So, you feel lost, desperately wanting to help, and not knowing how.

According to Inagaki et al.,2012, when someone we love is suffering, sometimes the stress that it brings up can give us the urge to escape how we feel about their pain. But when we do that, we can feel even more helpless and paralyzed because we stop ourselves from providing even some low-level support that could help us feel more comfortable in the supporting role.

While there are no hard and fast rules for supporting someone through mental health problems, there are a few things that can help along the way.

When someone is going through a tough time, it’s important to know how to offer support.


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In this article, we’ll discuss ways to help someone who is experiencing emotional pain or distress.

When we focus on trying to fix the problem, it is easy to underestimate the power of simply being there. Most people don’t want to be told what to do. But they do want someone to keep showing up to check in and show they care.

Listen carefully. Don’t offer advice unless they ask for it. Just reflect back what you hear them saying; let them know they are being heard and respected.

If the loved one has a specific diagnosis, it can help to learn about how it affects them and get more specific support/advice on the challenges they are facing.

Supporting someone does not mean that you have to connect with big, intense conversations. Human connection in the smallest of moments matters. Walking while you are talking can help those who feel uncomfortable with opening up. You can also say nothing at all. Simply spending time together, even in silence, is OK. By being there, you are helping them to feel less alone and more cared for.

Don’t forget that the person you are supporting will have an idea of what they need. So, asking them how they would like you to support them can help to guide you, while also communicating to them that you are listening.

Caring for someone can put a strain on your mental health. But you cannot support them at your best if your mental health starts to deteriorate. So, you must prioritize your health too even in small ways. Keep a close eye on the basics. Keep track of your sleep, routine, nutritional intake, exercise, and social contact.

Set boundaries. Supporting someone else does not mean that your life no longer matters. Getting clarity on your values can help keep you going when things get tough and ensure that you can maintain some balance.

It is easy to underestimate the power of listening with compassion, kindness, and curiosity. The problems may not disappear when you do that, but you are helping that person to feel cared for and less alone, which greatly improves their chances of recovery. Social support is a powerful tool and it does not need to come with all the answers, just a big dose of compassion.

If you are trying to help that person open up about their struggles, using open questions that ask for more than a yes or no answer can help. For example, rather than ‘Are you OK?’ try ‘What are you thinking?’

If that person talks about feeling hopeless or helpless, says that they cannot see a way out, or become concerned about their safety, always seek professional advice.

Being sensitive to situations in which your loved one may feel especially vulnerable (or asking them if you don’t know) means that you can be there for them when they most need it. For example, if a loved one is recently bereaved and has to attend a social function alone for the first time, don’t avoid them. Lean in and show them love and kindness. Those situations will still be hard, but feeling less alone can mean everything.

Work on a crisis plan. If the person you are caring for forever feels unsafe, then it is important to have a crisis plan. It doesn’t need to be complex. Acknowledge any early warning signs that things may be deteriorating and list the things that both of you can do to ensure everybody’s safety in that scenario. Having a written plan with all the numbers you need to call makes it easier to do what you need to in a crisis.

Have no expectations about their healing or recovery. It is never smooth and linear. There will be good days and bad days. Being surrounded by loved ones who are accepting of those ups and downs over the years will help them to do the same.

Don’t underestimate the power of practical help. If someone is facing struggles with mental health, physical health, pre- and post-natal periods, or grief, all of these can make the usual day-to-day tasks more difficult. For example, helping someone to eat a few healthy meals each week by turning up with a homemade dinner is a great way to support a loved one.

It’s OK to change the subject. Being around someone does not mean you have to focus on their struggles the whole time. Distraction can be a welcome relief that they might find difficult to achieve this when left alone.

Get your support. Whether it be someone you trust, a support group, or a professional, having a safe space to talk about your feelings and think about how to move forward can help stop you from burning out.

Be honest. If you want to be supportive but are unsure how to say that out loud. Ask the person to let you know if you are saying or doing something that is not helpful. This openness allows everyone to feel less anxious and to truly connect, knowing that the situation is working for everyone.


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