Life is stressful. Work can be demanding, family life can be taxing, and so can our relationships, finances, and health-related struggles. Just turn on the news or open social media and your blood pressure is apt to rise. Really, there are so many things that can be triggers for stress, and we all experience our fair share of them on a daily basis.
Equally stressful is when we watch our partners suffer from heightened periods of stress. It can be upsetting to witness and can even create tension within our relationships. Perhaps the most difficult part is that we desperately want to help, but often feel bewildered about what the best approach might be.
There is no one-size-fits all method for what to do when your partner is stressed, but I caught up with a few Talkspace therapists who offer some practical, compassionate, no-nonsense tips for how to help.
1. Listen without judgement and validate their feelings.
When we are stressed, we are often not even seeking advice, rather the need for our feelings to be heard.
“Validate their concerns and listen without problem solving,” offers Dr. Rachel O’Neill Ph.D., a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor from Ohio. “Although it can be tempting to launch into ‘fix it mode,’ sometimes individuals just want a place to vent their stress.”
Besides being a good listener, it’s important that we not dictate the correct way for our partners to respond to stress, but rather recognize that we are all different.
“Don’t try to fix things for them or control how they respond to the stress,” explains Christine Tolman, a Licensed Professional Counselor from Idaho. “Allow them to feel safe with you; be a port in the storm.”
2. Do a few small things each day to make your partner’s life easier.
There are many ways to express concern or care for your partner. However, sometimes your partner may not want to directly discuss what is troubling them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do little things to show that you are aware of their feelings, and that you want to help lessen the stress.
“Expressing care and concern in a variety of ways can have a powerful impact,” says Jill E. Daino, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) from New York. “A favorite meal or activity at the end of a hard day can help someone feel cared for,” she suggests.
3. Learn to identify the signs of stress.
Again, because not all people will directly share that they are stressed, it can be important for you to recognize the signs of stress in your partner. Many times, this will be signaled by a change in habits — something that you will be good at detecting because you know your partner so intimately.
“Changes in eating or sleeping habits, recurrent headaches or stomach aches, inability to concentrate or complete tasks are some of the issues we start hearing about when stress is present,” explains Cynthia Catchings, an LCSW from Virginia. “If you recognize these signs in your partner, be aware that stress may be the cause.”
4. Recognize that men and women may experience stress differently.
The differences in how men and women handle stress are generalized, of course, but it’s important to recognize that these differences might be a factor for you or your spouse — and also why you may feel confused about the best way to help.
“Men and women react differently to stress due to stress hormones,” explains Cynthia Catchings. “Women pay more attention to feelings and emotions, while a man is more interested in actions. Hence, a woman would generally prefer to receive comfort and love in the form of emotional support and holding, whereas a man is often more open to receive assistance with activities or other physical outlets.”
5. Make self-care a priority for yourself so you can be strong for your partner.
You can’t pour from an empty cup, so if your partner’s stress is causing you stress, it’s important to make self-care a top priority.
“Self-care is important, as we need to take care of ourselves to be strong enough for others when they need us,” says Cynthia Catchings.
Self-care can take the form of exercise, meditation, or therapy. It’s important to have at least one person outside your relationship (a friend, a therapist, etc.) to “vent” to about what is happening with your partner. You will not only be tending to your own needs, but you will be less likely to add additional stress to your partner’s already increased stress levels.
6. If stress levels become unmanageable, help your partner seek outside help.
Neither you or your partner can do this alone. If your partner’s stress level is making it difficult to function or causing high levels of anxiety or depression, it’s time to seek therapy.
How can you tell if your partner’s stress has reached that level? Well, sometimes increased stress levels are short-lived, but other times they can have severe impacts on a person’s life or relationships.
“Stress levels can become unmanageable and have severe impacts within the relationship,” says Jill E. Daino. “At that point it is important to be able to support your partner in taking care of him/herself and getting outside help if needed,” she explains.
The bottom line? It’s important to remember that all of us react differently to stress, but offering non-judgmental empathy and care is always the ticket when your partner is tense or overwhelmed.
However, it’s equally important to remember that you can’t always be the one to “save” your partner. If things are spiraling out of control, one of the most generous things you can do is to help your partner recognize this, and come up with a compassionate and effective plan to tackle the stress and feel better.
April is “Stress Awareness Month,” where health professionals and advocates team up to provide solutions for the modern stress epidemic. This piece is part of our series on understanding and combating daily stressors.