Practical ways to help someone overcome stress

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated January 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A potential part of helping someone overcome stress is learning about the physical, emotional, and psychological effects it can have on this individual. Stress is not a diagnosable mental health condition by itself. Still, chronic stress can be a cause and a symptom of various mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression. Helping yourself or a loved one cope with stress can involve partaking in healthy coping mechanisms from evidence-based therapeutic stress management techniques.

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What is stress?

Stress is strain or pressure applied to someone internally or externally—that alters or impairs various functions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), humans can experience and react to stress in many ways, some of which may not seem related to stress. Below are a few types of stress: 

  • Physical: Physical stress, potentially caused by illness, disease, or injury, can interfere with bodily function. Untreated stress can have physical consequences like high blood pressure, headaches, and an increased risk for heart disease. 

  • Mental: Mental stressors may include memory problems, difficulty concentrating, or increased anxiety. 

  • Emotional: Emotional stressors like grief, depression, or anxiety can drastically influence how you think, act, and feel. 

  • Psychological: Psychological stressors like fear can elicit a physical reaction. When your brain perceives a nearby threat, it releases hormones to incite the fight or flight stress response. For many people with stress and anxiety, the nervous system remains hyper-alert, even after the perceived or real threat has passed. 

  • Behavioral: Behavioral stressors could include significant changes to your sleep or eating patterns, avoiding responsibilities, or social isolation outside your typical behavioral habits. 

What does stress look like?

Stress can look different for everyone, but some common symptoms are observed with chronic stress and stress-related challenges like mental burnout. If you notice several of these symptoms in a loved one, gently express your concern and ask if you can help them find healthy ways to manage their stress. 

Physical symptoms

People with stress often experience physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, muscle tension, and chest pain. Other effects of stress on the body may include changes in sex drive, drastic shifts in sleeping habits, and fatigue. These physical changes can be challenging to cope with, which may amplify emotional stress.  

Emotional symptoms

Stress often presents as emotional disturbances like restlessness, difficulty focusing, sadness or depression, anxiety, a lack of motivation, persistent overwhelm, and fatigue. These emotional symptoms can affect a person’s ability to perform tasks in daily life, which could affect their overall health. 

Behavioral symptoms

Those having difficulties managing their stress may notice that they over or under-eat, turn to substance use as a coping mechanism, have out-of-character outbursts, show a marked decrease in physical activity, or withdraw socially. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

What can you do to support a loved one experiencing stress?

Watching the people you care about going through stress can be challenging and might make you feel helpless. However, when the problem is stress, you can offer a few techniques to help them deal with stress and its symptoms. Try to remember that what you think is best may not be what helps them the most, so keep an open mind and actively listen when they tell you what works for them. In addition, note that some stress symptoms might be due to a mental illness, which requires treatment from a licensed mental health professional.  

Listen without judgment

Some people may be reluctant to admit that they aren't doing well or are struggling to cope with stress. Whether you are sitting down to talk about your loved one's stress to find solutions or help them realize they need help, find a quiet, secret place to talk. Actively listen without judgment and allow them to express how they’re feeling and what's bothering them.

During the conversation, emphasize that you care about them, that they are not a burden, that mental health is a crucial part of being healthy, and that they don't have to go through this alone. If they aren't ready to talk, respect their wishes and don't push them into an uncomfortable conversation that they aren't prepared for. Let them know you're available when or if they're ready. 

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Educate yourself

One of the ways you may help someone experiencing chronic stress is to educate yourself about how stress can affect and alter the way a person thinks, acts, and feels. When you have a solid foundational understanding of what stress is and how it may affect your loved one, you may feel more confident in the essential tools to support them as they work toward establishing healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress. 

Ask what they need and offer support

Your idea of what relieves stress may not make sense to your loved one. Ask them what they need instead of pushing your coping skills onto them. Ask what bothers them the most, find ways to address those issues, and offer appropriate options. If clutter stresses them, but they can't focus enough to clean, send them off to take a relaxing bath and straighten up their home. Studies show that a clean home can improve mental health.

If the person is seeking physical activity, offer to walk or accompany them to the gym. Perhaps they crave a particular food or a nutritious meal but can't muster the energy to cook. You can help them make meals or order them a takeout option. You may not be able to solve their significant stressors, but there are minor ways you might lighten the load, making a difference in their daily life. 

If you are concerned about your loved one's mental health, you might also offer support in setting up an appointment with a therapist or other mental health professional. A qualified professional can offer medical advice, especially if the individual has other medical conditions. Ask your loved one if you can sit with them while they call a provider or drive them to a psychiatrist's office to set up services. You can also offer to help them fill out paperwork if they dread that step.  

Challenge their anxious thoughts

While experiencing chronic stress, viewing a stressful situation objectively can be challenging. You may offer an impartial perspective to help your stressed loved one take a step back and see the problem as it is rather than how it feels. For example, if they make a mistake at work and are convinced they will be fired, point out that it could make more sense for the company to allow them to fix the problem rather than invest in the significant time and money costs to replace and retrain a new employee. 

Join and support them in self-care

When a loved one is stressed, they might find that managing adequate self-care is too much of a chore. However, if they have someone there with them, also working to care for and value their health and well-being, it may encourage them to get started. The effects of stress can feel worse when a person isn't getting enough sleep, healthy food, or exercise. Establish a regular time to meet for a walk and soak up the sunshine, or try bringing a couple of healthy, balanced meals to them each week. Until they can manage it on their own, join them for self-care.  

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Professional resources for stress 

If you or a loved one struggles to manage stress reactions and the associated effects, consider contacting a licensed therapist. Only a qualified professional should provide medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment options. For those experiencing barriers, such as a lack of motivation or financial insecurity, you can also reach out from home through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Virtual treatment is often more cost-effective, has shorter wait times, and offers flexible appointment formats through phone, video call, or online chat. 

Researchers have also studied the effectiveness of online therapy, and the results of a recent study show that online treatment can provide similar outcomes to traditional face-to-face therapy. Many therapists choose cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) when helping clients address stress. CBT offers skills and activity training to help individuals identify maladaptive thought and behavioral patterns so they can reshape them to healthier, more productive habits. Some clients prefer online therapy because the extra physical distance can make consultation intimate details with the therapist less intimidating. 

Takeaway

Watching a loved one struggle with the effects of stress may make you feel helpless. The strategies outlined above could offer a few helpful ways to spark a conversation about stress and show love and support to someone you care about. However, note that these actions may not replace professional support. A licensed mental health professional can provide medical advice, determine an appropriate diagnosis, and offer treatment options. If your loved one is experiencing severe symptoms of stress, encourage them to reach out to a licensed therapist for further guidance.
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