In the time of the coronavirus, it’s not uncommon for old friends to call or for extended family to have dinner over video chat.
Your friends and family may also be reaching out for support as they grieve the loss of their typical routines and navigate the uncertainty of the future.
You want to help, but it’s not always easy to know what to say to comfort someone you love – especially when physical distancing measures mean you can’t drive to your friend’s house to sit with them or give them a hug.
So what can you do?
Dr. Kendra Read, an acting assistant professor with the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an attending psychologist at Seattle Children’s, explains how you can comfort your loved ones.
Check in with yourself first
Before you try and talk with your loved ones about their worries, check in with yourself first.
Read likens this to oxygen masks on an airplane: You have to put on your own mask before you can help someone else.
“It’s important to allow time and space to care for yourself and to cope with your own emotional responses,” she says. “This will allow you to better comfort another person.”
Another reason to first cope with how you are feeling? People look to one another for how to respond to events and mirror each other’s emotions.
This means, if you’re trying to comfort a friend but are panicking yourself, your friend will pick up on your true feelings through your tone and facial expressions and then mimic your response.
By being mindful of how you’re feeling – and how you are conveying your feelings – you will be able to better support your friends and family.
Validate your friend’s emotions
One of the best ways to support your friends is to let them know it’s OK to feel whatever they are feeling.
Anxiety is a completely normal response to a pandemic – as is grief, frustration, and even feeling normal.
“People may have a lot of different emotional reactions to the changes caused by COVID-19, and all of these reactions are acceptable and valid,” Read says.
When you are talking with a friend, make sure to actively listen to what they are saying, and then let them know what they are feeling is real and normal.
You don’t need to solve the problem to comfort your friend, Read notes. Just having a conversation where you support what your friend is feeling can be incredibly helpful.
You can also share if you’ve been feeling some of the same things as your friend. Saying, “this has been hard for me, too” is a way to help them feel understood and less alone.
Stay with the uncertainty
Whether it’s in person or on the phone, there may come a point in time when you’ve listened and validated your friend’s emotions, but they aren’t feeling any better.
It’s normal to feel like you don’t know what to say, and it’s important to remember that you don’t need to solve the problem or have all the answers.
Instead, lean into the uncertainty.
“The truth is we tackle uncertainty every minute of our lives,” Read says. “We never know what is going to happen next, and most of us typically do OK managing this.”
Give your friend the time to express what they are feeling and then be there with them as they ride through their emotions.
Remind them that they can handle uncertainty – and that they’ve already done so in their life every day thus far.
Be with your friend (even if you’re far away)
If you live with the person you are trying to comfort, giving them a hug or sitting with them while they process what they are feeling can help show them that they don’t have to face things alone.
If you don’t live together, find creative ways to check in and emulate that same sense of togetherness, whether it’s a group text, call, or video chat.
Even if you don’t know what to say, just staying on the line with your friend can let them know that you are there for them.
And for a sense of physical closeness, Read recommends using video chat while you go about daily tasks.
“Just setting up video chat when you’re both cooking dinner and hearing the sounds of each other’s lives can be comforting,” she says.
Help your friend find ways to care for themselves and make life more predictable during the pandemic.
If they currently can’t work, they may feel bored, overwhelmed, or that their days lack meaning.
Read recommends keeping some semblance of a schedule and doing small daily routines, like getting up around the same time each day and putting on new clothes (even if it’s just a fresh pair of sweatpants).
Small actions can help bring a sense of control and stability – and a great way to add routine is to go back to the basics.
Make a pact with your friend that you will both prioritize healthy habits to support your physical and mental health during this time.
Drink plenty of water, get enough sleep and food (yes, it is important to eat breakfast), and try to exercise and get some fresh air.
It’s also important to take a break from scrolling.
Remember how we mirror each other’s emotions and reactions?
If your friend is constantly reading news updates, they are likely being bombarded with scary anecdotes and overwhelming statistics, which they can then internalize and reflect by feeling scared and overwhelmed themselves.
Instead of being glued to a device and constantly checking the news, encourage your friend to set specific times when they will catch up on important information from reputable sources, like the Oregon Health Authority, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization. Or offer to relay essential information to your friend if reading the news is too much for them at the moment.
“A key piece to coping with all of our anxious thoughts is to practice being critical and selective consumers of all of this information, even our own thoughts,” Read says. “Try considering what is true, what is helpful in the moment.”
Enjoy the lighter side
Not everyone will want to dive into how they are feeling – and that’s OK too.
Sometimes the most comforting thing is to take a break from all things coronavirus and instead have a light-hearted conversation, whether it’s discussing a funny event from your day or sharing your post-Netflix-binge thoughts on “Tiger King.”
Now is also a great time to reach out to loved ones you haven’t spoken with in a while, particularly those who live alone or might need to hear a friendly voice.
Schedule a virtual happy hour to not only check in, but also to reminisce about old memories, laugh, and take a moment to relax.
Lean on mental health professionals and resources if you need them
There may come a time when you need to reach out for some extra support.
“I don’t want people to feel like they have to be a mental health professional for the ones they love,” Read says. “You don’t need to become the expert overnight.”
If you feel out of your depth, it’s OK to point your friend toward online mental health resources or to encourage them to seek help from a professional.
This is especially true if you are struggling with your own emotions.
It’s OK to be honest and tell your friend if you are having a hard time and can’t dive into a conversation.
Instead of trying to console your friend at that moment, you can tell them that you are feeling overwhelmed, too, and then maybe share an online resource that you’ve found helpful.
This abundance of new online resources is just one example of the many ways people have risen up to care for their communities.
For Read, these acts of support provide some hope in this difficult time.
“One really positive thing coming out of all this is the way people are coming together and finding ways to connect.”
It’s a silver lining that might just give you and your loved ones a little bit of comfort.
This article was originally published at https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org, April 17, 2020. Copyright University of Washington 2020. Reprinted with permission.