SAYING life isn’t quite the same as it was pre-pandemic is, well, an understatement.
For months we were stuck indoors for nearly 24 hours a day with our other halves – at a time when divorce rates in the UK are already skyrocketing by 20 per cent (ONS).
Likewise, Alcoholics Anonymous has reported a huge increase in calls from people who have found they are relying a little too heavily on alcohol to cope with the unprecedented pressures various lockdowns posed.
The eating-disorder charity Beat, meanwhile, has witnessed a 300 per cent rise in demand for its helpline services over recent months. People are struggling.
Some of your loved ones may have been affected by a halt on fertility treatment during the pandemic, meaning they’ve lost precious time, or even the opportunity, to have a family.
It’s not surprising that people’s mental health in general has been impacted.
As we get back to dinners out and face-to-face chats with friends, you might find pals updating you on their struggles.
Here, Healthspan’s clinical psychologist Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh (Dr-aria.com) gives advice on how to navigate new circumstances and support those struggling in the best way you can.
THE biggest mistake we tend to make when confronted by a friend who’s struggling is to invalidate them.
In a bid to console them, you might want to say: “No, everyone feels like this,” or: “I wouldn’t worry about it,” but this isn’t as helpful as you might think.
“In an attempt to reassure a friend, we can end up choosing words that minimise the importance of what they are saying,” says Dr Aria.
The danger in doing this is that your friend can be left believing that you don’t understand them, which leaves them feeling invalidated.
ANOTHER common mistake, especially when it comes to matters of alcohol addiction or mental health, is to say: “Oh, don’t be silly, you can’t possibly be XYZ.” Dr Aria says: “This can sound like you’re coming from a place of judgement.
It’s like saying: ‘How could you fall into a situation of addiction’.”
The first thing you can do, no matter the circumstance, is seek to understand
And, especially with something like alcohol addiction, these conversations can trigger uncomfortable or anxious feelings in you, the friend who is listening, so be mindful that your reaction isn’t coming from a place of emotion.
For example, if your drinking buddy who you can match wine for wine says they might be struggling with alcohol, it doesn’t mean that they are judging you for it, too.
Do actively listen
SO, what should you say to a friend who has opened up to you?
“The key here is to build the conversation around what is happening rather than the more judgemental why is this happening.
The first thing you can do, no matter the circumstance, is seek to understand, by allowing the person to talk more about it,” explains Dr Aria.
“Ask open-ended questions like: ‘Tell me more about that’, ‘How does it impact how you’re thinking or feeling?’”
This allows and encourages your friend to feel they can confide in you and continue to open up, rather than being shut down.
Do ask how you can help
OTHER great questions include asking: “What barriers/obstacles are you facing?” or “Is there any way I can support you?” and “Who else is around you who can help?” Dr Aria explains:
“This allows them to guide you on how you can be a better friend to them in their time of need.”
This will also let your friend feel seen, heard and valued. “We all just want to be heard,” he explains.
“A lot of the time someone isn’t coming to you because they think you hold the answer to their problem, they are coming to you because they trust you and they want to share something with you.”
Don’t try to fix everything
OFTEN in these types of difficult conversations – especially because we care about the person – we want to offer a quick solution and have things return to normal.
“Attempting to fix the situation or solve the problem is a common trap friends and family can fall into,” explains Dr Aria.
It’s not always possible.
Trying to fill silence leaves you at risk of offering empty, unhelpful words
For example, if a friend is having fertility struggles, there really isn’t anything you can do to get them a baby, so how do you navigate that?
“Hold the space for your friend – allow them to be sad, to grieve, and listen to them with love and compassion,” he says.
“Also, sometimes less is more – so don’t speak out of discomfort if there is silence or tears.”
Trying to fill silence leaves you at risk of offering empty, unhelpful words, such as: “There’s plenty of time for kids.”
Don’t Make Assumptions
BABY shower, engagement party or perhaps a big night out at that fancy cocktail bar coming up – your friend definitely won’t want to come, right?
Especially not if they’ve just confided in you about their fertility struggle/impending divorce/alcoholism?
Maybe. But believing you’re helping them avoid temptation or a difficult setting by not including them in your plans could leave them feeling left out.
Assumptions can also backfire when commenting negatively on a pal’s soon-to-be ex
“We want to make things easy for our friends, but assuming what they want to do could make them feel pushed out and lonely,” explains Dr Aria.
“Instead, check by asking: ‘What is helpful?’
"This lets your friend not only make their own decision, but also lets them know that you’re thinking about their feelings too.”
Assumptions can also backfire when commenting negatively on a pal’s soon-to-be ex.
So, don’t be quick to jump in and tell them all the things you’ve ever hated about their partner.
“Relationships can get better, so your friend might work through a break-up, but your words will be remembered,” says Dr Aria.
“That’s why it’s best to avoid character assassinations and instead focus on the actions that are causing your friend hurt.”
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