We all experience difficulties at different times in our life. When we are distressed it is hard to think logically and see things clearly so having someone you can turn to for support that is outside of the situation can be helpful.
When someone you care about is dealing with a tough time, it’s natural to want to help but not always easy to know how to. Here are some tips on how to be there for someone who’s going through a lot whilst also looking after yourself.
Looking after yourself
The urge to suggest solutions is normal but it’s also fine to just listen, ask prompting questions that encourage further reflection or elaboration, and take time before responding.
Your friend will be the expert in their unique situation. Listening with curiosity and reflecting on your understanding of their story can be helpful in clarifying the issue for both parties. Often, being given the opportunity to feel genuinely heard can be supportive and cathartic for the other person.
2. Identify the sources of their difficulty
Difficult experiences are usually a jumble of interconnected issues which could include personal, academic, and financial worries, cultural differences, familial pressures etc.
Helping them to separate out these concerns (writing them down) can provide a useful starting point for understanding what the problems are and how they can be managed or supported.
Ask them what factors are inside their control, and what is outside their control, and how they think they could resolve the issues.
Asking “what do you think you need” can be a powerful question to start the process of support.
3. Encourage them to understand their anxiety
Anxiety is the single most common issue facing most people at University and can lead to the mind becoming captured by worries and feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
This anxiety, or “fight, flight, freeze” response can also be accompanied by physical discomfort, and it is worth encouraging them to learn about this natural response so they understand what’s happening to them, and why taking steps to improve their condition is worthwhile.
4. Address uncertainty
Supporting your friend to reflect on what’s happening and what their specific concerns are may help them to challenge unhelpful or unrealistic stories they may hold about what things ‘should’ be like or what they worry ‘might’ happen.
Reducing uncertainty by identifying concerns clearly and accurately helps to ground worries in reality, and can be helpful in deciding the next steps to take.
5. Encourage them to plan
Recommend planning of realistic goals in conjunction with opportunities for self-care. This could be through using a timetable, task managing app or calendar.
Encouraging them to attend to their foundational wellbeing is a useful starting point in helping to manage anxiety by activating their innate counterbalance to the anxiety response, the “rest and digest” state. These basic wellbeing fundamentals include planning regular and consistent:
Diet and hydration (limiting caffeine)
You can also let your friend know about wellbeing appointments with the Student Wellbeing Service, which can support them to make positive changes, identify and challenge unhelpful tendencies, and put these fundamental factors in place.
6. Encourage them to be proactive
Encourage them to proactively consider their wellbeing early on in their journey. It’s better to build a self-supportive routine in the early stages to avoid or minimise difficulty later.
The wellbeing service blog and self-help pages contain student-focused resources available to all students.
Looking after yourself
1. Set boundaries
Set realistic expectations of what help you can offer and emphasise the importance of your friend taking ownership of looking after their own mental health and wellbeing.
Clear boundaries and realistic expectations can protect you from trying to support someone that is better cared for elsewhere and can help manage any distress you may be exposed to.
This might include:
Being clear that you also need time and space to look after your wellbeing and mental health to avoid developing dependency or expectations that you’re available 24/7.
Mirroring the importance of self-care and feeling able to say ‘no’ in an empathic and caring manner can help reinforce appropriate boundaries and foster healthier, balanced relationships.
2. Be mindful of your own capacity
It may be that your friend discloses something challenging to hear or even upsetting.
As much as it’s important that your friend knows there’s support available for them, you should also make use of the support options available too. Being exposed to someone else's distress can be unsettling and impact your own wellbeing.
It’s important to remember that its OK if you feel that you can't or don't want to respond and instead direct your friend to support services. This can give them a chance to talk through an issue with an experienced professional, such as your faculty wellbeing or welfare adviser, or someone from SAMHS depending on the level of concern.
The Student Wellbeing Service