Everyone experiences some difficulties throughout life: hardships, struggles, health, family relationships and losses that often produce highly charged emotional reactions. Though we cannot be prepared for the impact of these painful emotions – the support of others can and does help ease the stress we feel.
Some people see themselves as strong, autonomous and not in need of the emotional support from others. Yet, the moral and emotional support of friends has been shown to be critical for wellbeing. Dr. Irwin Sarason summarized several research studies that concluded, ”Good friends are good for your health”. His study of students at the Navy’s submarine school, found that students who had a friend whom they could trust if they got in trouble and with whom they were able to “be themselves”, suffered less physical illness than other students undergoing the same stressful training, with few friends.
Many studies cite the value of emotional support to patients suffering from a variety of medical conditions. Several Stanford University studies showed that breast cancer patients who participated in support groups lived longer than those who did not attend. Beneficial findings were also reported for patients with other forms of cancer, heart diseases, and other chronic and/or life-threatening medical conditions. People in addiction recovery rely on the emotional support of those who understand their struggle. Grieving individuals are reassured by the compassionate support of caring friends.
One need not be a former patient with the same condition, a recovered individual or a trained professional to facilitate another’s emotional hardship. All people can do so through empathy, kindness and true caring.
However, sometimes the best intention may, inadvertently, cause more stress than soothing. For example, trying to cheer up a depressed loved one may actually cause the individual greater isolation and unhappiness in not feeling understood and not being able to please others.
Dr. Coyne, a team psychologist at the University of Michigan states: “While friends and family are buffers against stress, they are fallible ones.” He describes it occurring in some cases where the helping individual is also personally impacted by the upsetting life-changes, such as in supporting a spouse in a prolonged recovery from a heart attack, or for some parents struggling with a troubled child, between close friends, or for a guilty overprotective spouse. When one is personally affected the capacity to support may become compromised.
Dr. Wortman studied 94 people whose child or spouse had been killed in a car accident. They reported that some remarks intended to be consoling ended up being disturbing to the bereaved. For example: “I know how you feel” was received as dismissive. “This will pass”, or “Don’t be upset”, felt judgmental and disrespectful of the grieving individual’s experience.
I use the imagery of a heartstring that connects one individual’s heart to another. When we transmit caring, love and empathy, the string is comfortably taut – not pulling, and not sagging loosely. Our calm presence transmits healing energy without demanding, expecting, or compromising our caring.
True support requires an authentic presence without an agenda, which means, being available for the person in need without attempting to change his/her ways, experiences or emotions as we transmit our healing emotions.
To be emotionally supportive:
• Convey your caring through a hug, a touch and an attentive, caring gaze.
• Say, “I’m sorry” to the bereaved, or “I am here for you” to the ill or distraught individual.
• Abstain from citing similar situations with positive outcome, how you overcame a similar crisis, or positive platitudes. It is not about you. You are there to support your friend. You may later say: “How can I help you?” or “What do you need right now?” Respect the answer.
• Emotional support begins with a loving concern that offers the person in crisis the option to speak or be silent while being honored by your comforting presence.