Someone you care about appears stressed

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about appears stressed.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about appears stressed. Maybe you notice they’re behaving and communicating differently. Perhaps they’re more irritable. Maybe you notice they’ve been drinking more alcohol to cope with life events, or they appear to have difficulty making decisions. Maybe they’ve complained about more aches and pains in their body or disrupted sleep.

What do you need to understand?

Stress affects everyone differently, but it can affect the body as well as the mind. It can present as pain or disrupt the body’s functioning, such as:

  • Digestion
  • Sleep patterns
  • Energy levels
  • Focus

Stress is a normal part of life when we experience what we perceive to be a threat. Threats are often related to adjusting to new circumstances. When there can be too many adjustments to make at one time, the stress can be overwhelming and interfere with our daily functioning.

What do you need to consider?

If you’re concerned about someone’s stress levels, consider if they’ve taken on more responsibilities or if their life circumstances have changed. Make a mental note of what you’ve noticed as a change in their life. Also, take note of changes in the way they behave or communicate.

Engaging in a supportive conversation?

Have the right mindset 

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do… ”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Here’s an example of a “noticing” conversation starter:

  • “I noticed you seem [busier, upset, distracted] lately, and I’m concerned for you. Please tell me what’s happening.

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person’s open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable with being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. The individual may not be ready to discuss the issue yet, but you’ve shown you care. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Here’s an example of “listening” in the conversation:

  • “It sounds like you’re telling me that life has become challenging and you need more help and time for yourself to recuperate and plan. Is that what I’m hearing?

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad you decided to share this with me. It must have been difficult going through this alone. Sharing concerns with another takes courage.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need for more time alone for self-care and time to review life approaches to reduce stress. I know you have ideas about how you could make this happen, so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding additional support”
  • “I could watch your kids Saturday afternoon for a few hours – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do at this time to create change in the other’s life.

Create

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to address to create some change in your life. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: