As many people are struggling with stress, fear, and grief during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may find yourself in a frequent position of comforting others—whether it’s your children, your friends, or your significant other. Finding the right words to say can be difficult, even if you consider yourself an empathetic person.
Ironically, what to say is less important than how to listen. You don’t necessarily have to offer groundbreaking advice when someone opens up to you about their feelings, unless they directly ask for your advice. In reality, what most people want is really to feel heard and understood.
Here are tips for what to say to help a loved one cope with anxiety related to COVID-19, according to Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine.
1. Ask open-ended questions
You want to avoid naming emotions, and instead, give them the opportunity to vocalize what they’re feeling. For example:
Ask “How does this make you feel?” instead of “Are you scared?”
Ask “What are you thinking about?” instead of “Are you worried about grandma?”
Ask “How are you handling all this?” instead of “Are you really stressed?”
An exception: If the person (especially a child) is having trouble identifying what they’re feeling, then it can sometimes be helpful to say something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed. Would you agree?” This can help them feel understood, while also helping them navigate their emotions.
2. Listen attentively
“Listen to what their thoughts and what their concerns are,” says Dr. Samuels. It’s a common mistake to immediately want to jump to a response (e.g., “It will all be okay”) before truly giving the person a chance to talk.
For example, if they say they’re scared, ask why, and give them an opportunity to “get it all out,” if they want to.
3. Validate their concerns
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to comfort others is dismissing their thoughts. Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned people will say things like, “You’re just overreacting” or “I think you’re just overthinking this.” This can make the person feel like you are judging them, instead of listening and accepting them.
The thing about fears and anxiety—even if they may seem irrational—is that they tend to have at least a grain of truth to them. “Those thoughts and those feelings and concerns come from somewhere,” says Dr. Samuels.
Language that validates and normalizes would be things like:
“I hear you.”
“That’s a lot to deal with.”
"I hear from other people that..."
“I can see why you might feel this way.”
“I would feel the same way.”
4. Help them reframe negative thoughts
“Challenge it a little bit [to find] a positive approach to that issue so that it's not so overwhelming,” says Dr. Samuels.
Reframing negative thoughts is a hallmark tool in CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. Negative thoughts aren’t “bad,” but they can be unproductive if they spiral into negative thought patterns that deteriorate your mindset.
For example, “we are stuck at home” can be reframed as “we are safe at home.” One simple word changes the mindset from seeing the house as a sanctuary instead of a cage.
If you hear a loved one verbalizing a negative thought, hear them out and help them feel understood, but then help them reframe the thought. You could ask things like, “Is there another way to look at this situation?”
Even if helping others with difficult emotions isn’t your forte, you should know that you are providing major help just by being present and attentive. “It is really important to offer emotional support to somebody who is struggling. We hear it all the time, but we are stronger together,” says Dr. Samuels.