Respond to those who are emotionally distressed

Our own emotions, including frustration, guilt or pity can impact our ability to respond to someone in distress. Learn to recognize and manage your reactions. 

Why this matters

When we see others who are distressed – perhaps by personal problems, mental health issues or work conflicts – we may experience a variety of emotions. We might feel fear, anger, frustration, guilt, pity or helplessness. It’s natural to have these emotional reactions, but they can prevent us from responding helpfully when we see people in distress.  

Our emotions can have a powerful impact on our attention, perception, thoughts and behaviours. Emotions can be the motivating force behind our actions. They can also determine whether we respond effectively by providing support or assistance or less effectively by avoiding a situation. 

Explore and reflect

To be most helpful, we need to know the warning signs of distress and have the knowledge and skills to respond appropriately. We all need to be aware of the impact our own situation and emotional state can have on our ability to help others. It’s important to be “present” and calm when responding to an upset person. 

Our emotional reactions can keep us from responding effectively. 

  • Fear: responding to someone who appears distressed can be daunting. Anxiety is a normal, natural response to an unknown situation. Our discomfort or fear may cause us to avoid or ignore the situation. 
    • Alternative approach: remind yourself that another person’s emotional distress is rarely about you and focus on their needs. Avoiding a situation may reduce your fear in the short-term but addressing the situation promptly and directly can be the better approach. 
  • Frustration and anger: a distressed individual might make us feel angry or frustrated. For example, you might approach someone working in customer service whose emotional state makes you think twice about returning an item. Might you threaten to report the person to their manager or turn away in frustration? Anger can foster aggression and revenge. If we’re frustrated or angry, we may become verbally abusive – like blaming or yelling at the person. We might also act agitated. 
    • Alternative approach: try to understand where the person’s coming from and focus on depersonalizing your reaction. You likely won’t know why they’re distressed, but you’re more likely to meet your needs if you talk to them calmly. Model respectful communication for a better outcome for both of you. 
  • Guilt (blaming ourselves): sometimes we feel responsible for another’s situation. For example, a co-worker might be overloaded with work. We may feel guilty if we’re not as busy and question if our level of productivity is impacting their workload. We may apologize to make ourselves feel better even if we’re not responsible for their workload. We may feel pressured to solve the co-worker’s problems. For some, guilt will delay taking appropriate action. 
    • Alternative approach: ask yourself if your guilt is valid. If it is, make amends – apologize or act to resolve the situation. If the guilt isn’t valid, think about what other function the guilt may be serving for you. 
  • Pity: the emotion of pity can evoke “rescuing” behaviour. If we feel sorry for someone, we may feel the need to “fix” their situation. This can reinforce a person’s feelings of powerlessness or helplessness. Although feeling sorry for someone may be reasonable sympathy for their pain, a better approach may be to empower the person to take control of their own circumstances. 
    • Alternative approach: ask yourself whether it’s your role and responsibility to help the person and whether potential change is within your control. This might be true if the issue affects your relationship. If yes, then act. If no, support them to find other solutions. 
  • Helplessness: confronting a person who’s experiencing personal problems, like alcohol use, might be more than we can handle. If we think a situation’s beyond our control, we feel helpless: we don’t know what would be best to do. The feeling of helplessness can make us indecisive and unable to find an effective coping mechanism. 
    • Alternative approach: if it’s possible to seek other supporters without betraying your friend’s confidence or revealing their identity, you could go to a credible resource. For example, you might ask for suggestions from Alcoholics Anonymous or others you know who’ve struggled with alcohol. Their experience can be helpful. 

Our personal emotional reactions can make it hard to deal effectively with someone who’s distressed. Other interrelated factors can complicate the situation even further. Here are some common barriers to responding appropriately to negative emotions: 

Inability to read the signs of distress: we must identify distressed persons before we can respond to them. We might not recognize the signs of distress – such as erratic or unusual behaviour, especially when we’re not monitoring the person. Or, we misinterpret the signs. In either case, we can miss our chance to react early. Sometimes, we ignore the first signs of distress because they seem trivial or because they’re difficult to differentiate from normal behaviour. Responding to the first signs of distress can help prevent further distress. 

Lack of resources: if we lack the skills to respond appropriately we might avoid or deny the situation. We might not know what to say or do or we not know where to get help. Instead, reach out to ask for help from someone who’s both capable and compassionate. This could be a professional, a family member or a friend.   

Our own emotional state or stress levels: if we’re not feeling well physically or emotionally, we tend to focus on our own issues and devote our energy to getting through our tasks and responsibilities. When this happens, we may not notice another person’s distress. Our negative emotional state can also make it harder to consider someone else. We may pay more attention to negative signs that match our mood. This can lead to us misinterpreting the person’s behaviour.

If you have a personal or collegial relationship with the person, try talking to them when you’re feeling calm. If you’re under stress of your own, try using strategies that help you self-regulate in the moment, like deep breathing. 

Take action

The next time you are interacting with someone in distress, take a moment to check your own emotional state. Once you recognize that you are feeling fear, frustration, anger, pity or helplessness, choose to let that emotion go and instead focus all of your attention on the person in front of you.