With ‘the silly season’ upon us we’re all looking at a calendar full of family-get-together, work-dos and festive parties. There’s a good chance you know someone who gets anxious or stressed out about interacting with lots of other people or what other people are thinking of them in these situations. So, Janice Dommisse from Master’s guides us through how we can help them.
So what’s going on with someone’s emotions when they’re experiencing a stressful episode?
The little part in your brain (that is the size of an almond) called the amygdala, stores all of your emotions like a library. Someone who has serious issues with stress and anxiety, their amygdala is probably working overtime, presenting these emotions too strongly.
The great news is, that you can train your brain to present these emotions in a not so strong way! There are desensitisation strategies or even medication to achieve this (all by the advice of a trained psychologist).
But if you want to help someone experiencing an anxiety episode, avoid saying things like:
“Just get over it, it’ll be fine.”
“You’re acting crazy” or “you’re being irrational.”
“Have you tried this?”
When someone has a diagnosable mental illness or they’ve been seriously struggling with anxiety for a long time, these sentences aren’t going to help. Sometimes it seems obvious, but it’s in the heat of the moment when we need to stop and think about what we’re saying.
If a loved one came to you and shared with you that they’d been diagnosed with diabetes, you wouldn’t suggest “just stop eating badly.” You’d probably ask how you can support them and help them get what they need.
What to do instead:
Commiserate them: Put yourself in their shoes, let them know you’re trying to understand them. “This must be hard for you…” or “It sounds like you’re struggling with that” lets them know you’re hearing them.
Facilitate their feelings: Act like their emotional midwife and facilitate their emotions. Help them process by encouraging them to ride ‘the emotional wave’. They need to experience the full peak and then come back down the other side. This takes different amounts of time for different people, sometimes a day or two, sometimes a week, sometimes years! Ask questions like:
When did this first start?
How does it make you feel? describe it to me.
What are you going to do about it?
As someone trying to help another person in this situation, just talking about the problem may not feel like you’ve achieved anything. But it’s actually very helpful in the processing of their emotions and of the situation. Remember, you don’t want to be the “hero” that rushes in to save them, they need to know that they’re capable of processing their emotions themselves. Your role is to empower them with their own capability.