In Norse myths there is a great wolf called Skoll who chases after the sun every day. In the Norse version of the end of time (an event called Ragnarok) Skoll finally catches and devours the sun. In everyday life many of us are chased by Skoll, but we call him Stress or Worry or Depression or Anxiety.
Watching someone being ‘hounded’ by worry is hard. So what can you do to help, and what shouldn’t you do to help?
DON’T try to put their stress in perspective by comparing them to other people or situations. “You know who has it really bad? Plankton. Everything eats plankton. At least you’re not plankton.” That isn’t helpful.
DO open the lines of communication. You can ask, “It seems like something is bothering you. Do you want to talk?” or “I’m here for you if you ever want to get anything off your chest.” Be the good friend they need. Create a safe space for them to open up to you without judgement.
DON’T play therapist (unless you’re actually a therapist). Don’t put yourself in a position of knowledge or authority. Your advice may come from a good place, but it doesn’t get received that way. Don’t try to solve them or diagnose them.
DO turn to professional resources. If you must intervene as more than just a good listener, then seek out information from sources like HelpGuide.org or the American Heart Association at heart.org. These sites have fact and tip sheets that you could order or print out and leave in a convenient location for them to find (on the fridge, in the fridge, by their reading chair, in the bathroom).
DON’T make this moment about you. “I see you’re stressed. You know, many years ago I was stressed about [blank],” is not the right approach. Whatever they are going through, this is their challenge, not yours. This is not a two-way street. This is a one way street where they need you right now. Besides, your stress is not the same as their stress, and what worked for you will not necessarily work for them.
DO ask them what they need. “Do you need some space?” “Do you want to talk?” Or, offer to take them out of whatever environment might be stressing them at the moment. “Hey, you wanna catch a movie?” Present opportunities for them to self-assess or take the pressure off.
In summary, don’t compare their situation to someone else’s, give them an open forum to express their thoughts and feelings. Don’t act like you know how to solve their problems, you don’t. Instead, look for professional resources. Find out what they need, be it time, space, or a distraction, and give that. Lastly, don’t let the focus turn to you. This is the time to be there for your partner, then when it’s your turn to need someone, they’ll be able to follow your example.