How To Talk With Your Friends and Loved Ones About Stress

The stress response — that surge of hormones which raise the heart rate, tense the muscles and accelerates breathing — is an evolutionary survival mechanism that, in the short-term, enhances your ability to react to threats.

When stress becomes chronic, unrelenting for weeks, months or years, this response can wear down your body, weaken your immune system, and lead to anxiety, insomnia and high blood pressure.   

A study on the role of social support in maintaining physical and psychological health found that strong social support systems enhances stress resiliency. Social interactions actually stimulate the production of hormones that counter the effects of the stress response. Although the health benefits of social support are well documented, one in five Americans report they have no one to rely on for emotional support.

I can’t do this alone 

Reaching out to family and friends to build your own support network can be difficult. You may be unwilling to admit you can’t handle everything yourself. There is also the danger that people close to you may take your words the wrong way and think you are blaming them for the stress in your life. They could become defensive, which would block effective communication. The task of seeking help with stress at work is even more difficult. You may fear that approaching your boss about overly demanding expectations and workloads could compromise your career. There are specific communication techniques you can employ to safely broach the subject with friends, family and employers.

Can I count on you for support and understanding?

Who, among your friends and family, would best be able to help you deal with the stress in your life? People with their own emotional issues may be able to empathize, or they may be too consumed with their own problems to effectively offer support. Consider those you know that have good listening skills and understanding natures. These are the people you want in your support network.

I’m having some problems; I need to talk

The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests ways to approach your friends and family members about your stress. Begin by planning how you will initiate a conversation. The Alliance calls this “process talk.” Communicate your need to talk, and tell the listener what outcome you would like from the conversation. For example, “I really need to discuss something that has been bothering me. I think talking with you will help me feel better. I hope you can be understanding.”

Rather than making a general complaint — “I’m so stressed out!” — offer some specific examples of how stress is affecting your life — “I’m so worried about our finances that I can’t sleep at night. I know we will be okay, but I can’t stop worrying.” Suggest ways family and friends can support you. You might ask for help with specific tasks, freeing up some time for you to relax, or you may just need a sympathetic ear and companionship.

 If you are a parent and wish to discuss your mental health with your child, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers these tips:

  • communicate in a straightforward manner;
  • communicate at a level that is appropriate to a child’s age and development level;
  • have the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable;
  • watch the child’s reaction during the discussion;
  • slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset.

 I see a problem; I know a solution — dealing with stress at work

Approaching your boss or coworkers involves a different set of concerns. You do not want to appear incompetent on the job, yet you cannot realize your full potential and maximum productivity if your work environment is filled with stress.

Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, suggests you approach your employer with a calm, professional demeanor. Be prepared with a list of your job responsibilities and reasonable estimations about the time and resources necessary to meet them. Assure your employer that your priorities are in line with company goals, but explain that you are having difficulty reaching those goals with the resources provided. Present yourself as a problem-solver, not a complainer. If the work environment is stressful, you are not the only employee suffering. Offer positive suggestions on how the office or work site can be made less stressful and more productive.

 Be Assertive, not aggressive

You may feel the source of your stress is the people in your life — that needy friend that is always asking favors or the spouse that doesn’t help with the housework. In reality, your stress is not caused by the behavior of other people, it is caused by your reaction, justified or not, to their behavior. If another’s actions, or lack of actions, bring out your stress response, say so, but do it nicely. Don’t attack, blame or criticize, rather assert how you are affected by certain behaviors. Discuss how you are affected — “I’m too worn out at the end of the day to cook dinner. Could you take over for a while?” This is far more effective than — “You never help out around here!”

You need to trust that your family and friends are concerned about your welfare and care enough to help. You also need to recognize your own self-worth. You are valuable to these people, and it is important you maintain your physical and psychological health not only for yourself but also for the people in your support network.