It can be overwhelming when someone is stressed, anxious, or angry. Most of us have learned that telling someone to “calm down” or pointing out that there is “nothing to be upset about” isn’t usually effective and often worsens things.
So what does help? Here are five things you can do to help someone who is going through a rough time.
1. Hold space. Holding space refers to being emotionally connected with someone in a kind and nonjudgmental way. Just holding space can sometimes be enough to calm someone down when they are anxious, angry, or distraught. Holding space can be as simple as just listening to the person. Resist the urge to cut them off, offer a rebuttal, or make a suggestion. Instead, make a point to really, truly listen to what they are saying. Intense emotions often arise when we feel out of control, scared, or disconnected. Feeling heard and understood is empowering and can invoke feelings of safety and security that will calm some of their intense emotions.
2. Ask them how you can help. When someone is upset, our instinct is usually to jump in and try to solve the problem. But this might not be what someone needs, and in many cases, jumping in to try and solve the problem makes the person feel as though you aren’t listening. Ask them what you can do to help, for example, “I can see you are upset. Is there anything that I can do to help you?” They may not know, and that’s okay. Just the fact that you cared enough to ask can go a long way.
3. Model physical calmness. When someone else is upset, it is easy for us to get upset too. We might absorb their frantic energy and start to reflect some of their distress physically. But this tends to escalate the situation as strong, negative emotions feed off each other. Instead, make a conscious decision to act and speak in a way that projects serenity, and this will help the other person calm down. For example, sit instead of standing, speak in a soft and quiet voice, make gentle eye contact, and take slow, deep breaths. Even if you don’t feel calm, appearing so can really help.
4. Offer a distraction. If the person is upset and doesn’t want to talk about it, you can offer to distract them. Finding an activity that requires focus, but isn’t frustrating or complex, can be helpful. You can help them through a grounding exercise, like progressive muscle relaxation (squeezing and then releasing each muscle from your toes to your head) or having them focus on the things around them (such as the 5-4-3-2-1 technique: looking for five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste).
5. Give them some space. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a step back, especially if someone has told you that they don’t want to talk about what happened. You can also ask directly if they wish to talk about it or whether they would feel better with some time to themselves. If they would prefer to be alone, don’t take it personally. Sometimes strong emotions can be overwhelming, and having other people around can be more stimulating than calming for some people.
Have you ever had to talk someone down? Is there anything in particular that you’ve found helpful in those situations?