Wake Forest communication professor Jennifer Priem studies dating relationships and explores the connection between supportive conversations and physiological signs of stress reduction.

When a loved one is feeling stressed, your first instinct may be to chime in with advice. But why does it feel like “helping” sometimes only worsens the situation?

Wake Forest communication professor Jennifer Priem studies dating relationships and explores the connection between supportive conversations and physiological signs of stress reduction.

“Providing support is rarely about solving a problem or giving advice. It is a moment where people are stressed, scared, sad and feel alone in those feelings. They want someone to be with them, understand them and show them they are loved and cared for,” she said.

Using saliva samples, Priem can measure changes in stress by when cortisol levels rise and fall as a result of support conversations between dating partners. Cortisol is a stress hormone and when overactive can lead to health problems from headaches to heart disease.

“Stress has been linked to as much as 99 percent of illnesses. Chronic stress — stressors that last a long time — have the greatest negative impact, but research shows that daily hassles (traffic, arguments at home, work pressure, etc.) have a cumulative effect that influences health in the same way as chronic stress,” Priem said. “That is why it is important for partners to provide support even when they think the stress is minor or insignificant. Couples who learn to support each other well not only strengthen their relationships but the partners’ immune function.”

Supportive communication

When a person is feeling stressed, “he or she is more critical of messages coming in and is less likely to see cues of affection, liking and possibly even support, if the messages are ambiguous,” Priem said.

That makes a partner’s job more difficult, but it also provides cues for what to do and what not to do.

“One of the best ways to start a conversation is by validating the emotions of the distressed person and asking questions. The validation should be clear and explicit, even if you don’t think your partner should be upset or they should have seen it coming,” Priem said.

Listen more, talk less

A good listener doesn’t do a lot of talking but rather asks questions that help the stressed person work through their emotions.

“You could ask, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Sometimes people don’t want to talk, but they want someone to be with them,” Priem said.

Offer support by just sitting with a stressed person with good, active listening skills such as eye contact, nodding and leaning toward the person. Let them know you are there for them if they want to talk at a later time, Priem said.

“A lot of times people will ask what they can do to help, but people who are stressed likely don’t know what will help. The best partner will look for small or large ways to ease the burden from their distressed partner and do it. For example, if a spouse is overwhelmed with pressures at work and home, his/her partner could say, ‘Why don’t I take the kids out for a bit and you can just relax?’ Or find a way to take a task off their plate,” she said.

Avoid advice

Unless advice is asked for, don’t provide it.

“Advice is threatening, especially to a stressed person. It is rarely perceived as helpful, even if it is intended that way. It hurts, it makes people defensive, and it suggests that the listener doesn’t think the stressed person can solve their own problem,” Priem said.

There’s no one right way to provide support.

“Just like we learn how to express love in a way that our partner perceives as love, we should learn how to support our partners in a way that makes them feel supported. Giving them the type of support we would prefer may not be the best form of support for them,” Priem said.