Whitney Goodman LMFT

Healing Together

How to Help Someone You Love Calm Down

Co-regulation strategies that actually work.

Posted Dec 16, 2019

Supporting someone in distress is hard.

Humans take on the emotions of others. We want other people to feel better, but we also don’t want to experience their distress. You may notice that when you're around someone who is frustrated or crying, you start to shift in your seat or you feel your heart beat a little bit faster. 

Most people tell me that they just want their support person to listen and refrain from providing advice until they’re ready. They want to feel heard, seen, and understood.

Unfortunately, most of us are quick to reach for a cliche or positive statement when someone is hurting. We scramble to make the pain go away.

If you are sitting with someone who is going through a hard time, here are some things that you can do to help:

  1. Listen and validate their experiences and feelings. You can say something like, "I hear you. That sounds really hard."
  2. Ask questions about their experience. Ask clarifying questions like, "What was that like for you?" If they aren’t ready to talk, honor that.
  3. Light touch. You can place your hand on their shoulder or back. Ask what they can tolerate before initiating or using more touch.
  4. Put an arm around them. This is another touch option that can be useful. If the person isn't comfortable with touch or doesn't enjoy this, respect that. 
  5. Eye contact. Making eye contact can help the other person feel seen and like you're comfortable engaging with them. Avoiding eye contact may lead them to feel like you're not at ease or want to escape.
  6. Use a calm voice. Try to refrain from yelling or raising your voice. A calm, even tone will help.
  7. Breathe in and out slowly next to them. This often works better than telling someone to "just breathe." If you notice that breathing is labored, try slowly taking a deep breath in and out. The body will often mimic the energy around it.
  8. Lean on one another. This is another form of touch that can be nonthreatening. You can lean on one another's shoulders, in a lap, or even back to back if that feels safer.
  9. Become aware of your own distress. If you are overwhelmed or showing signs of distress, it will disrupt the other person. Try to keep a pulse on your level of distress and recognize when you need to take a break.
  10. Take a time out when needed. Supporting someone can be challenging. You are allowed to protect your own energy and set boundaries when needed.

Remember to always ask and remain open to feedback when co-regulating, while also considering what feels safe and comfortable for you. Joint safety is most important.