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Best Support is to Validate Concerns of Stressed-Out Friends

In a new study, Pennsylvania State University researchers studied how people responded to a variety of different messages offering emotional support. They found that messages that validated a person’s feelings were more effective and helpful than ones that were critical or diminished emotions.

Investigator believe their findings can help people provide better support to their friends and families. The research appears in a virtual special issue of the Journal of Communication.

“One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification,” said Xi Tian, a graduate assistant in communication arts and sciences.

“For example, instead of telling a distressed person how to feel, like ‘don’t take it so hard’ or ‘don’t think about it,’ you could encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings so that person can come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviors.”

Tian said that previous research has shown that social support can help alleviate emotional distress, increase physical and psychological well-being, and improve personal relationships.

However, be careful on how you phase your encouragement. Researchers found that depending on how support is phrased or worded,  it could be counterproductive. Indeed, messages intended to provide support could actually increase stress or reduce a person’s confidence that they can manage their stressful situation.

Dr. Denise Solomon, department head and professor of communication arts and sciences, said they were trying to learn more about why well-intentioned attempts to comfort others are sometimes seen as insensitive or unhelpful.

“We wanted to examine the underlying mechanism that explains why some supportive messages may produce unintended consequences,” Solomon said. “We also wanted to understand how people cognitively and emotionally respond to insensitive social support.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. Before completing an online questionnaire, participants were asked to think about someone with whom they had previously discussed their marriage or spouse.

Then, they were presented with one of six possible supportive messages and were asked to imagine that person giving them that message. Lastly, the participants were asked to rate their given message on a variety of characteristics.

“We manipulated the messages based on how well the support message validates, recognizes, or acknowledges the support recipients’ emotions, feelings, and experiences,” Tian said.

“Essentially, the messages were manipulated to exhibit low, moderate, or high levels of person-centeredness, and we created two messages for each level of person-centeredness.”

According to the researchers, a highly person-centered message recognizes the other person’s feelings and helps the person explore why they might be feeling that way. For example, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.”

Meanwhile, a low person-centered message is critical and challenges the person’s feelings. For example, “Nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that low person-centered support messages did not help people manage their marital disagreement in a way that reduced emotional distress.

“In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength,” Tian said. “Those messages induced more resistance to social support, such that the participants reported feeling angry after receiving the message. They also reported actually criticizing the message while reading it.”

In contrast, high person-centered messages produced more emotional improvement and circumvented reactance to social support.

“Another recommendation that can be taken from this research is that people may want to use moderately to highly person-centered messages when helping others cope with everyday stressors,” said Solomon.

The researchers said people can try using language that expresses sympathy, care and concern.

For example, “I’m sorry you are going through this. I’m worried about you and how you must be feeling right now.” Acknowledging the other person’s feelings or offering perspective — like saying “It’s understandable that you are stressed out since it’s something you really care about” — may also be helpful.

Source: Penn State

Best Support is to Validate Concerns of Stressed-Out Friends

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Best Support is to Validate Concerns of Stressed-Out Friends. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/04/09/best-support-is-to-validate-concerns-of-stressed-out-friends/155266.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Apr 2020 (Originally: 9 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Apr 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.