We all need some support from time to time, especially from our partners. However, it can be difficult to know what is the right thing to say or do to help, and sometimes you may even feel like you are making things worse.
Wake Forest communication professor Jennifer Priem has studied how supportive relationships can help reduce our stress levels and affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When levels of cortisol are high, it can contribute to a variety of health problems including heart disease, headaches, sleep problems, and difficulties concentrating. However, supportive communication with your partner can actually reduce the levels of cortisol by calming and alleviating distress.
As well as calming your partner in the moment, the benefits in supporting each other could also be longer lasting. Cortisol can not only cause short-term stress but also long-term, with prolonged exposure to stress hormones placing wear and tear on the body. Supportive communication that speeds up a reduction in cortisol levels, even slightly, may help to provide long-term relational and health benefits, strengthening the relationship and the individual.
Here assistant professor Priem shares which features of supportive communication have been shown to reduce stress and could help improve both health and relationships.
Acknowledge that the person is under stress
Priem explains that you are more likely to give the best support when you interpret the stress at the same level as the person needing the support. Even if — and maybe especially when — you don’t think the other person should be stressed, he or she still needs support. “If your partner is feeling stressed, telling him or her ‘don’t worry about it’ or trying to distract the person from the stress by changing the subject is generally not going to help,” she adds.
Using verbal and nonverbal forms of communication
Priem advises listening and asking questions, making eye contact, nodding and touching, all of which can help reduce cortisol levels.
“The fastest stress recovery comes from explicit messages,” says Priem. “When a partner is stressed they are unable to focus on interpreting messages well. Clarity and eye contact help.”
Listening and understanding may be enough
Priem explains that we often feel the need to say the right thing or fix the problem, but most often when people are stressed they want emotional support, which mainly consists of listening intently and asking questions. Listening to your partner can be enough to offer your support by validating their feelings and turning off strong emotional responses. Unless someone specifically asks for advice, do not offer it. Once you validate their feelings, people may ask for advice, but they have to be ready to hear it.
Adjust your approach as needed
It’s possible that you think you are providing good support, but good support isn’t good unless the person receiving the support perceives it as helpful.
“Cookie cutter support messages don’t really work,” says Priem. “Stress creates a frame through which messages are interpreted. Support that is clear and explicit in validating feelings and showing interest and concern is most likely to lower cortisol levels and increase feelings of well-being and safety. If you aren’t seeing improvement in your partner’s anxiety, you may need to change your approach.”