Helping Others Deal with Stress
Chris had always been a friendly, well-liked kid. He was a member of the student council, swam backstroke on the swim team, and sang in the school chorus. He had a younger sister with whom he seemed to get along pretty well, and he and his mom and sister went to church most Sundays. When Chris was in the first half of 11th grade, however, his friends noticed that his personality seemed to change. He became withdrawn, and often seemed angry. He didn’t laugh much anymore, and he was hanging out with a different group of kids than he used to.
His friends were concerned and tried to talk to Chris, but he just kept on saying that everything was fine; he just felt like being with different people sometimes. His friends noticed that Chris was acting different in school now, talking back to teachers and getting into trouble. His grades were in trouble, too, and it seemed like he just didn’t care.
One Friday night after a school football game, two of Chris’s friends saw his car in a parking lot across from the stadium and went over to say hello. When they got there they discovered that Chris was in the car with two kids they didn’t know very well, smoking marijuana and drinking beer.
Now Chris’s friends were really concerned, and kind of angry, as well. They thought Chris was acting like a jerk for no reason and turning his back on those who’d been his friends since fifth or sixth grade. Chris didn’t return any of their texts that weekend and didn’t show up on Facebook, either. He seemed to be pulling further and further away from them. Upset and concerned, Chris’s friends talked over the situation and made a decision to confront him about what was happening.
Pulling Chris aside after school one day, they convinced him to come to Jack’s house to hang out for a little while. Once there, they expressed their concerns and told him they were upset with how Chris had been acting. Chris didn’t want to talk at first, and he even got a little mad, but finally he told them that his dad was in serious trouble for stealing money from his employer, and probably was going to be arrested soon. His dad had been drinking a whole lot, and his mom and dad fought all the time. Chris also suspected that his dad had been having an affair, and was afraid his parents would end up getting divorced. He was worried about his mom and sister, and really, really angry at his dad.
Once Chris had told his friends what had been going on, they understood that he’d been under tremendous stress and had been acting out in an effort to relieve that stress. They convinced him to talk to the swim coach about what was going on, and the coach was understanding and helpful.
In the end, it turned out that Chris’s dad wasn’t arrested, but ended up going into rehab to address his drinking and other problems. It was a rough time and took a lot of work on everyone’s part, but eventually, with the help of a good counselor, the family was able to work out some of its problems and begin to move forward.
Chris probably never expressed it to his friends, but he would always be thankful that they didn’t give up on him and cared enough to insist that he tell them what was happening.
If you have a friend or loved one who you suspect is very stressed out, you can stand by that person and offer your help. Stress-related problems easily can lead to depression, anxiety, and other disorders, so it’s important to address them early. What, then, can you do?
FIND YOUR FRIEND SOME HELP
If you have a friend or relative who you believe is experiencing significant stress-related problems, the most important thing you can do is steer that person toward some help. You might suggest, as Chris’s friends did, that he or she talk to a teacher, coach, or guidance counselor. Offer to go with her. If she’s hesitant, you could say something like, “Hey, it’s not a big deal. Let’s just go and hear what the guidance counselor has to say.”
Because you’re reading this website, it’s a good bet that you’ve experienced some periods of considerable stress in your own life. Perhaps you’ve already benefited from talking to someone about what was occurring and you could say to your friend: “I remember when I was so stressed out after Drew broke up with me. I really felt better when I talked to Mrs. Smith about it.” Knowing that you’ve experienced similar feelings and were able to cope better after asking for help may be reassuring to your friend.
If you suspect that your friend is suffering from depression, a condition often related to stress, it’s very important that you suggest that she see a doctor in order to get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. If left untreated, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and even suicidal acts. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and the sixth-leading cause of those between five and 14, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
Not everyone who is depressed experiences the same symptoms, which are listed in this post about Long-term Psychological Effects of Stress, but if your friend seems very sad, hopeless, restless or irritable, tired, or withdrawn; or is experiencing sleeping problems, eating too much or too little; or having physical symptoms like headaches, ongoing aches and pains, cramps, and digestive problems that don’t go away, you’re right to be concerned.
While it’s difficult sometimes to approach someone you know and suggest that he or she might need to get some help, it’s the best thing you can do for a friend suffering from stress-related problems or depression. Hopefully, your friend will agree, either now, or in the future.
What happens, though, if your friend becomes upset or angry at your suggestion? Maybe he or she doesn’t want to talk about it, or he or she is embarrassed. If you are genuinely concerned about a friend and he or she refuses to ask someone for help, it’s important that you talk to an adult you trust about the situation. Hopefully, that adult will contact your friend’s family or another adult who can intervene and take charge of the situation.
PROVIDE EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
As a teenager who has experienced your own share of stress, you’re in a good position to be understanding and empathetic toward your friend. Chances are you can remember what it’s like to feel your heart beating too fast, or your stomach clenching, or being unable to sleep, or feeling like you want to pig out on junk food all the time because it makes you feel a little bit better. Understanding those feelings lets you be empathetic and offer support to others experiencing those same feelings. You can’t, of course, totally understand another person’s thoughts and feelings, but when you talk to them you can project understanding and empathy.
The definition of empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
All that means is that a person who is empathetic can understand what someone else is experiencing and feeling without the other person verbalizing it, often because the empathetic person has been through a similar or same situation.
If you know someone who is struggling with problems related to stress, you can help by offering emotional support. Emotional support can come in the form of a hug, a touch on the arm, an offer to talk, or sometimes just a smile. Letting your friend know that you understand he or she is struggling is a form of support. So is sharing your feelings and letting him or her know you’re open to talking and listening. Sharing your experiences and how you coped with your own problems are good means of emotional support, but don’t spend so much time talking about yourself that you neglect to really listen to him or her; sometimes, even when we’re listening to someone else, we’re really thinking about what we’d like to say and just waiting for a chance to jump in.
Experts advise that, in order to be an effective listener, you should keep the following tips in mind:
> Once the other person begins talking, just listen. Don’t interrupt or interject information or your thoughts—just listen. Maintain eye contact with the person speaking and actively indicate that you’re listening by nodding or other gestures.
> When your friend is done talking, summarize back to her what she told you, focusing on how you think she must feel. You could say something like: “Wow. You’ve really got a lot going on with college boards coming up this weekend, your dad being in the hospital, and you mom losing her job. It sounds like you’re having a hard time handling all that.”
> Ask your friend to clarify how she’s feeling. This will give you a better idea of her state of mind and may help her to feel better by expressing her feelings.
> Don’t be tempted to shift the focus onto yourself right away, even if you’ve been in a similar situation. Wait until she’s had her say, and then you can share your experience and how you handled it.
> Don’t jump in with advice until your friend has had her say. Often, just explaining a problem or situation out loud provides enough clarity that the person experiencing it can figure out a solution on her own. Once she’s had time to say everything she wants to, you and she can put your heads together to come up with some suggestions for how she might solve the problem.
BE A DEPENDABLE PRESENCE
Someone who is experiencing problems related to stress, like Chris was, might not be pleasant or fun to be with. Instead of looking forward to being with your friend, you might actually start to dread seeing him or her. You might be tempted to avoid your friend because it’s easier to just not deal with his or her attitude, or sadness, or worries.
Avoiding your friend, however, could make him or her feel abandoned or rejected, or think you no longer care about him or her. When someone is under a great deal of stress, the last thing he or she needs is to feel is abandoned. Even if your friend’s behavior is difficult and annoying, try to remember that now is the time she needs you the most. If Chris’s friends hadn’t stuck by him and maintained a dependable presence during his time of difficulty, who knows what further trouble he might have gotten into, or if his stress would have led to serious depression or other problems?
A person who is going through a tough time because of stress needs to be reassured of friendship. You can do this by continuing to call or text your friend and asking him or her to do things together. If he or she doesn’t feel like going out to the mall or the movies because he or she doesn’t want to be around a lot of people or is afraid others won’t understand what’s going on, offer to bring over a movie you’ve been wanting to see. Encourage him or her to participate in activities that you’ve enjoyed together in the past, but don’t push too hard on this. He or she may feel unable to participate; pushing him or her could just worsen the situation.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask what your friend would like for you to do. Maybe he or she just needs somebody to walk to school with, because he or she feels uncomfortable going in alone. Maybe he or she would like you to be there when he or she approaches a parent about how he or she has been feeling lately and asks for help. Support comes in different forms, some requiring more physical presence than others.
HELPING AN ADULT COPE WITH A STRESS PROBLEM
The discussion in this post so far has been about helping someone your own age, or close to your own age, with a stress problem. What happens, though, if you know an adult who’s having a difficult time coping with stress and problems resulting from it?
As you know, stress can affect everyone. Even babies and little kids can be affected by stress. It’s a sure thing that teens are, and adults are no exception. In fact, it’s a rare adult who isn’t feeling stressed out in way or another. So, while it would be unusual for an adult to approach a teenager and ask the teen for help, you just might find yourself in a situation in which you have frequent contact with an adult experiencing stress-related problems.
If the affected adult is your mom or dad, or another adult who lives in your home, you’ll need to remember that what’s going on with one person within a home generally affects the rest of the people living there, as well. If your mom is big-time stressed out, chances are that everyone else in the house will somehow be affected. Your mom might be irritable, or yell at you, or ignore tasks she usually performs. You might come home and find there’s nothing to eat for dinner because she was too stressed out to go to the grocery store and cook a meal.
It might be that your dad doesn’t understand what’s going on with your mom, and is reacting with frustration or anger, advising your mom to “just snap out of it” or “pull yourself together.” And, while there’s probably nothing that your mom would like to be able to do more, it simply may not be possible for her to overcome her problems and get back to normal on her own.
Watching a parent or other adult struggle with a stress related problem can be disturbing and frustrating, and sometimes even scary. As a teenager, you’re aware that adults experience problems on a regular basis. Their problems are different from some of those that affect teens, and adults generally encounter problems that most teenagers haven’t had to deal with yet. While you understand that, you might somehow have the expectation that adults should be able to control their problems and not let them affect their lives—or the lives of others who depend on them.
Because the problems of an adult in your house are likely to affect the entire family in a negative manner, it’s important that you let someone know how you’re feeling. This should not be done in a confrontational or accusatory manner; you shouldn’t say something like “You’re making everyone in this house miserable” or “I can’t stand the way you’ve been acting lately.” Instead, say something like “I’ve been worried about you lately, and I wonder if there’s anything you want to talk about or anything I can do to help you.”
That sort of language lets the adult know that you care and want to help. Then you can explain to your mom or other adult that her behavior is affecting your life, and, if applicable, the lives of your siblings, and that you’re concerned about what might happen.
You should be aware that people sometimes react differently when they’re upset or struggling than they would under normal circumstances. If your mother responds to your overture by getting angry or telling you to leave her alone, try to remember that it’s the problem that’s causing her to do this—it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love you.
If you don’t get any satisfaction or resolution from trying to talk to your parent, you’ll need to find another trusted adult to confide in. If there’s not another parent available to consult, maybe you could talk to a grandparent, aunt, or your mother’s best friend, who, in turn, could talk to your mom. If there’s no relative you can talk to, perhaps you could ask the advice of a religious leader or someone at your school.
It’s very important, however, that you understand that you’re not the cause of your mother’s problems. The situation, whatever it is, is not your fault, and it’s not up to you to fix it. All you can do is express your concern and suggest that your parent seek some help so that she’ll feel better.
You can help out at home by picking up some extra chores and being reassuring to younger brothers and sisters, but you’re not yet an adult and you shouldn’t feel that you have to assume responsibility for the entire household. When all is said and done, it’s your parent’s responsibility to take care of herself.
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF WHILE HELPING SOMEONE ELSE
Caregiving is extremely difficult. People who actively care for someone who is sick for a long period of time suffer high rates of depression, often express feelings of being burned out, and sometimes become ill themselves. Even a situation in which you’re not providing hands-on care, but are just very concerned about another person, can be demanding, stressful, and wearing. If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, keep the following tips in mind:
You can’t solve a problem by yourself. As much as you’d like to make someone you care about who’s experiencing a problem feel better, you can’t do it all by yourself. The other person must play an active role, as well, and, in many cases additional help will be required. Don’t beat yourself up if the person you’re trying to help doesn’t seem to respond as quickly as you’d like. Chances are, he or she appreciates your caring and is glad for your efforts.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, ask someone else for advice or help. It’s not a sign of weakness to express to someone that you’re concerned about a situation and not sure how to handle it. In fact, seeking help in a difficult situation is a sign of being mature and responsible.
Take time for yourself. Even when you’re very worried or concerned about a friend or family member, you’ve got to take time for yourself and remove yourself from the situation sometimes. If you’re helping a friend through a bad time, don’t do so at the expense of your other friendships and activities. If you’re helping an adult family member, remember that you’re still a teenager and you need to have some time to be with friends and enjoy life. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for wanting down time or understanding that you need to take care of yourself.
Remember to pay attention to how much sleep you get, make sure to eat well, and take time off for fun and relaxation.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
> The most important thing you can do for a friend or relative suffering from stress-related problems is to steer him or her toward help.
> If the person you’re trying to help rejects your offer or becomes angry with you, you may have to seek assistance from a trusted adult who can address the situation.
> Emotional support is letting someone know that you care about him or her and can be very comforting and helpful.
> Good listening skills are important when you’re trying to help someone who has a problem of any kind, including one that’s caused by stress.
> Being physically present can help your friend to feel secure and cared for.
> Adults are also affected by stress-related problems and might also need your help, but you need to remember that you’re not responsible for the problem and can’t fix it by yourself.
> When caring for others, it’s extremely important to take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating well, and making time for some fun and relaxation.