How to offer emotional support during a pandemic

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

Recall a time when your friend ran out of cash while dining out. You did not think twice before pulling out your purse and helping them out. Or the time when your sister scraped her knee as she fell from her bicycle. Rushing to help her stand up, get the wound cleaned, and putting on a plaster would have been the immediate reaction. Support comes in many forms: financial, physical, social, spiritual, etc. While many are unafraid to speak up and ask for all these types of support, perhaps the most important remains overlooked. That is emotional support.

Emotional support refers to the ability to be genuinely concerned and compassionate for another person. An important aspect of emotional support is empathy, which stems from the ability to see things from the perspective of another. Empathy is about being able to put ourselves in the shoes of another, and really look at the world how they would see it. This is the only way of gaining a true, holistic understanding of their situation. While having financial support and physical support is necessary for life, as they are our fundamental needs, it is also important to have emotional support. It relates to the basic human need for connection.

Do not mistake this for a merely casual or superficial connection. Rather, it is a deep, meaningful, authentic connection – one where you are unconditionally accepted and cared for, whether you are happy, sad, scared, worried, frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed. Can you see how we may all benefit from some emotional support whilst going through this pandemic right now?

The pandemic we’re experiencing currently has changed the course of life for many. Some have lost their jobs, some are juggling being parents and having to work from home, some are overwhelmed by the number of online lectures they have to take per day, some are nervous about the health of their parents and grandparents – there is a mix of feelings involved. Sometimes our minds can try to trick us into believing that we are isolated in this experience, as if the rest of us are not going through the same motions of feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and frustrated at the uncertainty of not knowing when we’ll be able to recover and return to a sense of normalcy. This results in many trying to navigate through this experience on their own, blaming themselves for not being okay, and not reaching out for support when it is direly needed.

It is okay to reach out and seek support. At the same, we ought to realise that not many can reach out and ask for help. It is difficult to see a way out when someone is in a pit of despair because they’re surrounded by feelings of depression and anxiety, among others. Therefore, as important as it is to encourage people to reach out, it is also necessary that we attune ourselves to identify when things do not seem quite right. If your friend seems to be more silent these days, if your sibling seems to be staying in bed more than usual, or your colleague seems to be reacting more instead of responding, now that he or she is working from home, all of these could be tell-tale signs that they’re having a hard time. These are times when you have to approach them and simply ask: “How are you feeling?”

So, what do you do after you ask this question? How do you actually provide emotional support to someone?


Active listening


Note the “active” aspect of listening highlighted here. Active listening requires you to be available and present. If your mind is preoccupied, it would be difficult for you to give your complete focus to the other. And our minds are quite sharp to pick up on this. So, before you know it, there will be walls up and you’ll be left out of the conversation. Therefore, make it a point to be ready to give your complete attention if you are to provide emotional support.

Active listening involves listening to both the content of what the other person is sharing and the way the content is shared. This means listening to what they say and how they say it. If you are able to listen to them in person, make a note of their body language and gestures. If you’re speaking on the phone, notice how their voice cracks and their tone changes when speaking of different topics. These are all important signals that narrate their inner experience.

Active listening involves more than just nodding your head. Active listening makes use of skills that can be developed such as paraphrasing, clarifying, and summarising. All of these are meant to make sure that the listener understands the speaker’s experience wholly and ensures that the speaker is heard. Never underestimate the solace one feels when being heard.


Validating emotions


We are enculturated to bottle up, minimise, and dismiss emotions. We’re deceiving ourselves when we undermine the effect of emotions in guiding our living, and falsely believe that we are guided by a rational problem-solving part of ourselves. So, instead of dismissing the emotions of another or going through quick fixes like reading out a menu card, how about we validate the emotional experience of another instead? Saying something like “that sounds so frustrating. I can see why you would be so stressed right now” can bring about a shared understanding. This in turn allows the person to be seen and heard in their struggle. Oftentimes, when we are sharing our distress with another, we’re not looking for a solution right away. Instead, we’re looking for someone to validate our emotional experience as human so as to acknowledge that it is normal and okay to be feeling this way, and to show that we are accepted and cared for unconditionally.


Offer gentle encouragement and support their solutions


There’s no other time we invite harsh self-criticism more than when we’re feeling down. It is at these times when gentle encouragement would be so valuable. When you’re supporting your friend or family member, be specific and honest when you invite them to look at their strengths. We can tell when compliments are disingenuous. Considering the current pandemic situation, it would be helpful to gently remind them of their resilience. It is important to give them hope while being firmly grounded in the reality of what is under their control in these uncertain times. If the way they’re choosing to resolve the problem is not your preferred way or is not ideal, do not dismiss them or try to force your solutions on them. Unless you can foresee a lot of risk and danger in their chosen method, it is best to remain supportive of their choices. Offer gentle encouragement when appropriate and invited to do so.

Photos Wikihow, Twitter, Sharon, Selby, Hartfield School