From work to finances and family responsibilities, there's simply no avoiding stress. And with the latest news of the novel coronavirus pandemic, political instability and racial injustice, our country's collective stress meter is through the roof.
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But people aren't always good at connecting the dots and recognizing stress in themselves. In fact, sometimes, it's easier to spy stress from the outside.
We talked to Jor-El Caraballo, MA, EdM, LMHC, a NYC-based therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness, to learn how to spot spiraling stress levels in our friends, family members and partners, as well as ways to help our loved ones cope during tense times.
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Signs That Someone Is Under a Lot of Stress
While stress varies for every person, there are some routine red flags.
"The biggest thing to watch out for is changes in the person's behavior," Caraballo tells LIVESTRONG.com. For many, that may look like a shift in their eating and drinking patterns (substantially more or less), but stress can also manifest as a break in routine.
"For instance, if you know your good friend or loved one works out regularly but suddenly finds it difficult to do so, that might be a space to explore further," Caraballo says.
Mood and Personality Shifts
What's more, "many people also demonstrate changes in mood or personality, such as being more irritable, less engaged in conversations or exhibiting a general 'meh' kind of feeling," he adds.
Additionally, if your friend or family member begins to lament about increased headaches, upset stomach or poor sleep, heed these complaints since they are also telltale symptoms of stress, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
How to Help Someone Experiencing Stress
Now that you've identified the signs, what can you do to help a loved one who's struggling under the weight of stress? Here are four things to try when someone you care about is going through a tough time.
1. Ask What They Need
"There is no one right thing that helps everyone, so the best thing that you can do is first ask how you can best be supportive," Caraballo says. In other words, don't assume you know what someone needs and always listen.
This is especially important for people who have a difficult time asking for help, even when presented with the opportunity to gain support, and for those who aren't inclined to take up much space emotionally, he says.
In these cases, you may need to be a bit more active and directive. For instance, you might offer social support by saying, "I'd like to have food delivered to your apartment, cool?"
But, if your friend of loved one isn't comfortable receiving your help, respect their boundaries and try not to take it personally. "The bottom line is that help is best served when the person is able to state what they need or want, and if you can, make it a point to deliver on that," Caraballo says.
2. Show Up in Specific Ways
While checking in with a loved one and asking, "How are you?" is well-intentioned, you might better serve your friend or family member by offering help in specific ways, Caraballo says.
Think more along the lines of "How can I make this day easier for you?" That may look like assisting in everyday tasks such as grocery shopping or meal prep, which can feel particularly daunting and burdensome when stress levels are high.
"This way, your loved one doesn't have to feel the pressure of defining their feelings but may instead focus on resolving problems, or at least on making them better," says Caraballo. "And that can make all the difference when someone is feeling really overwhelmed or stressed out."
3. Encourage Them to Seek Professional Help
There's nothing worse than watching someone you love struggle. If you're worried about the mental toll stress is taking on your friend of family member, you might suggest they seek professional help.
But keep in mind: When broaching the subject of therapy, you must do so with the utmost sensitivity and compassion otherwise you run the risk of upsetting the person, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
While your loved one may be floundering to cope with stress on their own, they may have reservations about seeing a therapist for fear of being judged. That's why it's vital to use non-stigmatizing, nonjudgmental language when discussing your concerns, per NAMI. Equally as important, remember to emphasize that asking for help doesn't indicate weakness but rather demonstrates a great amount of strength.
Once you’ve shared your suggestions, give your friend or family member the space to make the decision that best suits their needs. And, whether they choose to engage in therapy or not, continue to show your love and support.
4. Research Support Networks
"If someone has expressed interest in working with a therapist or psychiatrist but has had trouble setting that initial appointment, doing some of that legwork for them could be really helpful," Caraballo says.
That's because a lot people don't know where to begin when seeking therapy. By conducting research and locating mental health professionals in your loved one's healthcare network or neighborhood, you can act as a guide and help simplify the initial process, which may feel intimidating or even a little scary.
But always get their consent before you start the search. "If not, you may end up doing unnecessary work that your friend or family member won't appreciate, leaving you feeling resentful," he explains.
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