Published: 27th March 2020
COVID-19: Here's how you can help friends who are stressed out during these uncertain times
The findings, published in a virtual special issue of the Journal of Communication, suggests that your comforting words can have different effects based on how you phrase them
If you are wondering what messages to give your family and friends who could be stressed out due to the restrictions imposed in a bid to contain the spread of novel coronavirus, researchers have found out a solution that may work for you. They found that during uncertain times, messages that validated a person's feelings were more effective and helpful than ones that were critical or diminished emotions.
The researchers tried to understand why well-intentioned attempts to comfort others are sometimes seen as insensitive or unhelpful. "One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification," said one of the study authors Xi Tian from the Pennsylvania State University in the US. "For example, instead of telling a distressed person how to feel, like 'don't take it so hard' or 'don't think about it,' you could encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings so that person can come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviours," Tian said.
The findings, published in a virtual special issue of the Journal of Communication, suggests that your comforting words can have different effects based on how you phrase them. The researchers said people can try using language that expresses sympathy, care and concern. For example, "I'm sorry you are going through this. I'm worried about you and how you must be feeling right now."
Acknowledging the other person's feelings or offering perspective -- like saying "It's understandable that you are stressed out since it's something you really care about" -- may also be helpful. The researchers studied how people responded to a variety of different messages offering emotional support. They recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. After analysing the data, the researchers found that low person-centered support messages did not help people manage their marital disagreement in a way that reduced emotional distress.
"In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength," Tian said. In contrast, high person-centred messages produced more emotional improvement and circumvented reactance to social support. According to the researchers, a highly person-centered message recognises the other person's feelings and helps the person explore why they might be feeling that way. Meanwhile, a low person-centred message is critical and challenges the person's feelings. For example, "Nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed."