“In a relationship, each person should support the other; they should lift each other up,” says the ever-enlightened Taylor Swift. Of course, elevating and supporting each other is an essential ingredient of any healthy relationship. Sometimes our good intentions end up making the situation worse.
Wake Forest University communications professor Jennifer Priem’s research focuses on the connection between supportive actions and physiological signs of stress reduction. Her work sheds light on the specific behaviors that provide high quality comforting. When a person is stressed and in fight or flight mode, the stress hormone cortisol floods the system. Using saliva samples, Priem determines changes in stress by measuring the rise and fall of cortisol levels that follow an interaction with a loved one.
According to her findings, here are three features of communication that provide high quality comforting:
1. Validate their experience
Even if — actually, especially if — you think they are making a mountain out of a molehill, the person still needs to feel supported. Telling them that the situation is “no big deal” will likely be interpreted as indifference, not reassurance. Acknowledge that they are having a tough time. While well intended, telling the person to “chill out” or “not to worry” minimizes their experiences and definitely won’t dial down cortisol levels.
2. Provide “felt love”
Non-verbal forms of communication speak volumes. Give the person your full attention. Put your phone away. Make eye contact. Give them a hug. These little gestures are powerful cortisol reducers. As best-selling writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon observed, “Most of the people who get out of depression are the ones who know they are loved.”
3. Listen deeply
Before offering any words of wisdom, hear them out. Resist the urge to interrupt, cheer them up, or to tell them they are overreacting (see #1 above). Hold off on giving advice unless they specifically ask for it. Instead of assuming you know what’s best or have all the answers, follow their lead.
Alas, wanting to be supportive does not always translate into good support. Good support is only good if the person on the receiving end perceives it to be good. Try not to take anything too personally in these moments—when people are stressed, they may not be at their best. So be flexible and forgiving.
Poet David Whyte explains what it really means to show up for another:
But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.
While it’s nice to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud, bearing witness and letting them know they are not alone are the essence of high quality comforting.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman