Jennifer Priem Ph.D.

Stressing Communication

Stress and Providing Support: Why Do We Care

Learn strategies to bypass stress and provide effective support.

Posted May 14, 2019

Photo by John Williams on Unsplash
Source: Photo by John Williams on Unsplash

It happens all the time in relationships. Someone you care about is stressed and in need of support. How you respond is crucial, but in order to most effectively respond there are some important facts about stress that you should know. Beyond understanding what stress does to people, you can use your knowledge about stress to adapt your support attempts to get the best possible outcome.

    

Stress Is Associated with Many Illness

  • When we are stressed, our bodies release a series of hormones that provide the energy to take action—fight or flee—and cope with the stressor. Because of that, the stress response is a very adaptive and healthy process, when stress is short term.
  • When stress continues long term, however, the elevated stress hormones creates wear and tear (known as allostatic load1) with physical, cognitive, and emotional consequences. Unresolved chronic stress is associated with the changes to the hippocampus (a brain region associated with memory, learning, and emotion), cognitive dysfunction, high cholesterol, heart disease, increased inflammation, chronic pain and fatigue, arthritis, depression, and greater disease progression, just to name a few.

Stress Changes Our Perception

  • Greater sensitivity to threat: Because stress is an adaptive response to keep us safe from danger, when we are in a state of stress, we are more attuned to threats in our environment. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense for a zebra out in the wild. In times of danger, the zebra needs to be keenly aware of anything that could signal a lion who is looking for a meal. In our modern world, the same response is less adaptive, but still initiated when we are under stress. In our everyday lives, it may mean that we take an ambiguous or innocuous comment from a loved one as an insult or a hurtful message.
  • More critical: Stress also creates a negativity bias (likely for the same evolutionary reasons as described previously. It is more important to attend to the negative when trying to survive, than the positive). In personal relationships, the negativity bias makes individuals less likely to see behaviors that signal liking, affiliation, care, and concern. 

What Does This Mean for Providing Support?

As support providers, we need to remember that our loved one is literally not in their "right mind" when they are stressed. Beyond what was already discussed, research has shown that at moderate levels of stress, concentration, memory, performance, and message processing/production are high (moderate stress motivates us and sharpens skills), but at high levels, all of these things decline. Your partner is looking for threats through the negative and critical lens of stress and is less able to see the sweet and kind things you do or say. It's not their fault, it's just the downsides of stress. Knowing this though, we can adapt to provide more effective support.

  1. Be specific: Research has shown that explicit validation of your partner's feelings is the best way to provide emotional support—leading to emotional improvement and re-interpreting the stressful situation as less stressful.Remember that your partner is likely to see any unclear message as a negative one. Your messages don't need to be over the top, but they do need to be clear. 
  2. Be patient: Even if you don't agree with how your partner feels, show compassion. Disagreeing or telling your partner that they shouldn't feel the way they do or that the situation "isn't a big deal" will only serve to make them more entrenched in their negative feelings and lead to hurt feelings. 
  3. Don't try to "fix" it (even if you think you know how): People who are stressed don't have the cognitive resources to process in a rational way and engage in problem-solving. Validate their feelings, ask questions, and engage in active listening. As stress levels decline, people become more open to advice and problem-solving.

Next time your partner comes to you in a time of stress, remember these facts about stress and tips for how to best respond.

References

1. McEwen B. S. (2005). Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 30(5), 315–318.

2. Priem, J. S., & Solomon, D. H. (2018). What is supportive about supportive conversation? Qualities of interaction that predict emotional and physiological outcomes. Communication Research, 45, 443-473.

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