Call Your Mother: What do when a friend is stressed

Graphic courtesy Savannah Hawley

We’ve all heard plenty of advice on what to do to manage stress. We may have even actually learned from that advice and figured out how to keep our own stress levels in check. However, this advice can’t prepare us for another particularly stressful situation: when our friends are stressed out. 

Our cortisol levels are likely to increase when we’re around stressed people, resulting in a condition called second-hand stress. When the people around you are worried about school, post-grad life or some other anxiety-inducing situation, it can be tough to know the right thing to say or do to help them feel better. Here are a few tips to try to help the stressed-out people around you – both for their mental health and your own. 

It’s important to recognize when a friend is dealing with normal stress and when the issue is something more serious. We all deal with stressful weeks, but if you notice major changes in a friend’s personality, sleeping or eating patterns for longer than a few weeks, you may want to encourage them to see a counselor. William Jewell College’s free counseling services are a great tool for anyone to utilize. The following tips are all for helping a friend with typical stress, not a more serious mental health concern. 

When a friend is stressed out, it’s important to listen to them without adding your own stresses to the mix. Don’t tell them about the massive test you have tomorrow or how few hours of sleep you got last night. It’s not a competition. While you may think you’re helping them feel better about how they have it easier than you, in actuality it will just make them feel like you aren’t interested in listening to their problems. 

If your friend tells you about something difficult they’re dealing with, your first instinct might be to fix the problem. It’s natural to want to provide solutions to your friend, but these solutions might not be wanted. Before you give advice, ask your friend if they want help or if they’re in the mood to just vent. If they just want to vent, respect their request. If they want advice, feel free to bestow all of your abundant knowledge upon them. 

Sometimes, if a friend is stressed about school, what they really need is time to get homework done. If they seem to be in the middle of a big assignment or studying for a test, don’t interrupt them. Give them space. If your roommate seems stressed about school, be sure to be courteous and keep the noise to a minimum. 

When your friend is in a tough situation, doing small acts that show you care can make a big difference. Write them a note or pick up their favorite coffee order. If they are your roommate, make their bed for them one morning or clean the bathroom – but make sure they are okay with you touching their stuff first. Coming back to a clean environment can be a great stress reliever. 

The most important thing for helping stressed-out friends is making sure they know you care. If they have a big test on Wednesday morning, be sure to text them Wednesday afternoon to ask how it went. People like to know that their friends listen and remember details about their lives. Oftentimes, there’s nothing tangible that you can do to make someone else’s stress go away, but you can always make them feel loved and supported.

Second-hand stress affects many college students. It’s okay to take a breather if being around a stressed friend is too much for you to handle. Your friends should respect if you need some alone time. Our stress levels vary from day to day, and if you and a friend are overwhelmed at the same time, there is nothing wrong with spending a few days apart.

Everyone needs their person who they turn to when they’re stressed out, and it can get exhausting if you are that person for everyone. Make sure you also have people in your life who are there to listen to you. 

We all know how tough it can be to know how to best help a stressed friend. By knowing your limits, being a good listener and letting your friend know you’re there to help, you can improve your stress levels and the stress levels of the people around you. 

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