Four ways to support loved ones experiencing stress

The hands of two individuals interlocked for comfort and words "4 ways to support loved ones experiencing stress" on top.By Maxine Seya, CSU Marriage and Family Therapist Intern

Do you ever feel stuck and unsure what to say when a loved one tells you they feel stressed? Do you want to help them but feel like saying “that’s too bad” is insufficient and “you need therapy” seems dramatic?

As April’s Stress Awareness Month kicks off, let’s explore exactly what stress is as well as four tips on how to help someone feeling stressed – a friend, colleague, family member

What is stress, and how can it show up?

Stress researchers Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman define stress as an organism’s reaction to external survival-related demands. When our survival-related demands feel too heavy, our stress levels increase.

In the everyday sense, even nailing an important presentation, turning in a big project on time, or making sure dinner is served at home can be perceived by our bodies as survival-related demands. After all, we might need that job to keep food on the table and a lackluster presentation can jeopardize that path to survival.

As stress builds, it manifests in different ways. Sometimes, people experience short term, or acute, stress such as a disagreement with a friend or preparing for a challenging exam. In these cases, people might notice increased heart rates, difficulty sleeping or eating, aches in the body, breathing difficulties, or an inability to relax.

On the other hand, some people experience long term, or chronic, stress. Chronic stress may stem from relentless situations such as battling poverty, navigating tumultuous intimate relationships, or dealing with systemic barriers like global pandemics, racism, or sexism. As chronic stress builds without relief, people might experience anxiety, depression, hypertension, heart disease, or gastrointestinal disorders, among other health problems. Adding acute stress symptoms may complicate chronic stress health issues.

These outcomes may sound dreary, but the good news is, you have the power to help a loved one alleviate their stress.

Helping a loved one with their stress – four tips.

Research has found that having and feeling social support can alleviate one’s stress. To help a loved one experiencing stress, we tapped into pre-licensed therapists at the Colorado State University Center for Family and Couple Therapy for their best advice. Whether you’re witnessing your roommate panic about a final exam, comforting your anxious child before his soccer game, or seeing your spouse tense up at the thought of in-laws staying over, these tips can help you support your loved ones.

  1. Ask what your loved one needs.

Therapist Nate Biggs emphasizes the importance of being curious. Stress can stem from a variety of sources, and people’s preferences for support can differ from day to day. Sometimes, helpers who mean well jump into problem-solving when the person feeling stressed just wants to be heard.

“I tend to lean on asking for what they need or want in the moment,” Biggs says. “Guessing wrong can be invalidating and can create distance when you are seeking closeness, so I will typically ask something like ‘how can I help you most in this moment?’ If they seem to be struggling with an answer, I may offer a low-stakes default like ‘how about we just sit, and I’ll listen, and if you find yourself wanting something different, you let me know, okay?’”

  1. Remind them you have their back no matter what.

You don’t need to have the answers. Therapist Rubén Flores highlights the value of simply reminding your loved one that you are there for them.

“Remember, when it comes to our loved ones, you’re not a consultant, a therapist, or a coach,” Flores says. “You don’t have to fix anything to be valuable. Sometimes, the most valuable thing you can do is remind them that you’ve got their back no matter what and will sit with them with whatever comes their way.”

  1. Encourage them to explore answers within themselves.

Sometimes, your partner, child, or friend might not want a loving ear – they might prefer a collaborative brainstorming session with you to solve a problem causing them stress. Even if you’re asked to brainstorm solutions to a stressful situation with a loved one, Flores suggests that your loved one might find answers to their questions within themselves.

“It’s really useful to ask your loved one, ‘what’s your gut telling you?’” Flores says. “By encouraging your loved one to believe in their own strengths, you empower them to better cope with stressors.”

  1. Validate their feelings of overwhelm.

When someone you care about feels badly about themselves or feels burdened, it can be hard not to jump in and remind them of all the positives in their lives or how much worse their lives could be. After all, most people feel uncomfortable seeing their loved ones in pain and want them to feel better.

Therapist Maya Chatterjee practices validating stressful feelings instead. “I like to really sit there with them and be there with them to notice what’s really overwhelming in their life and validate that feeling of being overwhelmed,” Chatterjee says.

Validation is defined as the act of affirming a person, or their ideas, feelings, actions, etc. as acceptable and worthy. When validating a loved one’s stress, you might say things like ‘I can see you’re in such a tough spot. I would be stressed too,’ instead of ‘worrying is a waste of time.’

As we approach Stress Awareness Month, look out for signs of stress in yourself and your close connections. You may find supporting each other is more in reach than you think.

If you would like additional support navigating acute or chronic stress, the CSU Center for Family and Couple Therapy has registered counselors available to meet with you now. The CFCT is currently providing all Colorado residents low-cost individual, couple, and family online video sessions during daytime and evening hours to fit your schedule. To schedule an appointment, please call (970) 491-5991 or email

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.