How can you tell when someone close to you is getting close to the edge? Look for distinct changes in their behaviour and emotional state.
Someone who is often moody or a little snappy might just get a bit more so when under pressure. That will pass, probably. So when someone’s responses are uncharacteristically bad-tempered, or when a usually sociable person becomes withdrawn, or when they seem unable to make decisions or cope with tasks, you might pick up on the fact that they are under a lot of pressure.
If you ask how they are feeling, you might get a brush-off, or a flippant reply. Instead, calmly tell the person what you have observed, and put it in concrete terms.
Show you are ready to listen if they would like to talk about it. Don’t be offended if they refuse. Make it clear that the offer is always open and be ready to seize the moment if it occurs.
Talk it through
You don’t need to take someone out and ply them with drink to get them talking, although there are few conversations which cannot be improved with a glass of Prosecco (but also do not advise them to get drunk). Get together in a congenial place where you can talk without being overheard or interrupted.
Your role is to encourage your friend to disclose and describe how they are feeling, to help them identify the source of their distress and explore ways of improving the situation.
That’s a pretty tall order, especially if you thought you were only going to supply a shoulder to cry on. The shoulder is great but have a go at taking the conversation to a different level.
Listen without interrupting
It’s hard not to rush in with comments about how you would deal with that bullying boss or how to sort out a difficult relationship. Just don’t. It’s also a good idea not to refer to your own experiences, even if you think they are relevant.
Sometimes it is tempting to try to take away the hurt. Seeing your child or your friend in distress is painful and you want to make it better right away. But respecting the fact that they are in a bad way and validating their feelings is helpful and respectful.
Don’t minimise or laugh off what’s happening. Don’t tell them it will all be the same in a hundred years. Don’t point them in the direction of drink or other drugs.
Accept the feelings
You might not understand why your friend is getting in such a state about a family situation, for example, or about a house purchase, or about problems at work.
You might feel they shouldn’t be letting these things affect them. You might think it’s time they got over their bereavement, or their divorce, or the kids finally leaving Hotel Mum and Dad. But they are being affected, so just go with it and tune into how they are feeling. You can talk in a minute.
Show you have understood
You can help your friend to identify the nature of their feelings, particularly if you are talking with a child or young person who does not have your breadth of knowledge of emotional states. (There, all that scrutiny of Cathy and Claire’s problem page and intense discussion with your pals on the way to school has paid off.) Saying ‘It must feel very frustrating’ or ‘You seem to feel overwhelmed’ or “The insecurity is getting to you’ helps you both to clarify the situation.
Ask good questions
It’s not a good idea to let the conversation ramble on, with you being sympathetic and your friend going over and over the same ground. You need to ask the kind of question which will help you both to understand the nature and extent of the problem.
Closed questions can help here. Answers to ‘How many times do you get up during the night?’ or ‘How often do you get these really bad headaches?’ could make someone realise the seriousness of their situation and prompt them to make a doctor’s appointment.
Hypothetical questions are good too. ‘What would happen if’ or ‘Imagine that’ or ‘Just suppose’ can begin to point a way forward. ‘Suppose for a moment that you went part-time’ or ‘Imagine that you told her how her behaviour affects you’ are questions which suggest possibilities.
Another one which is good for so many situations: ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ The worst is usually – usually – not that bad.
Find a practical action
If the problems are focused on work, your friend needs to talk to the appropriate person. That is probably their manager, or maybe a different manager, or someone in HR. Employers have a duty of care and need to show that they have listened and responded.
Your conversation will have helped to identify what is causing most stress, so work out together how your friend can present this in a rational way. Get them to practice while you listen. The more familiar the subject matter the less likely they are to burst into tears or get worked up as they speak.
Starting this kind of conversation can be daunting. Work out a good opening that gets the point across without being too emotional. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being emotional. It’s just good to feel in control in these circumstances.)
If your friend has consulted a doctor about their stress, they could begin with ‘I need to tell you that I’ve been experiencing symptoms which my doctor says are stress-related.’
Have a brainstorming session about ways of relieving the stressful situation. You could do a mind map together. Maybe it would be helpful to explore ways of getting another job, or ways of saving or earning more money, or ways of getting organised.
Offer practical help. There could be something you can do yourself, or arrange to have done.
Exercise is a great stress reliever, so you could go for a walk or swim, or do a class together. Social engagement may be the last thing the person wants, but offer anyway. Relaxing with friends and having a laugh does give relief. A good box set and a tub of ice cream don’t make problems disappear, but they help to soothe the pain.
Careful with your choice of entertainment though. That powerful documentary about human trafficking or that award-winning film about a doomed love affair in a war-torn country may not be quite the thing right now.