How to Help Others Manage Anxiety and Sadness
For over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought great uncertainty about the future and a staggering loss of life. Few have been lucky enough to sidestep resulting anxiety and sadness. In difficult times, it is natural for us to turn to each other for support, given that social support can help us effectively manage negative emotions and cope with life’s emotional challenges. But what is the best way to help others manage different kinds of negative emotions? Our studies examine what strategies are particularly helpful for those feeling anxiety and sadness.
Past research on social support presents a paradox—those who receive support do not necessarily experience benefits from receiving support, while those who provide support often improve their well-being by giving support. This tells us two interesting things about helping others manage their emotions.
First, we improve our own well-being by being there for others and helping those who are struggling emotionally. Second, some of the ways we try to support others may be ineffective for them. Understandably, we might catch ourselves—when confronted with the suffering of others—wishing we could help, but not knowing exactly what to do. Indeed, while decades of research have investigated how we manage our own emotions, little research has sought to understand how we can effectively help others manage their emotions.
My colleagues and I at Columbia University aimed to address this gap by focusing on two emotions: anxiety and sadness. Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion that we experience when perceiving potential threats, whereas sadness is an emotion focused on the past that we experience when perceiving personal loss. Both emotions are thus based on how we think about events, future or past.
Different Strokes for Different Folks?
We reasoned that because anxiety and sadness result from different interpretations and situations, we should use different strategies to help others manage these emotions:
- For people experiencing anxiety, it might be more helpful to provide advice regarding how to actively change their situation to avoid the threat they are worried about. If someone is anxious about an upcoming interview, suggesting ways to help them prepare for it should be helpful. Thus, in the case of anxiety, we would help the person to actively change their situation.
- For people experiencing sadness, it might be more beneficial to provide emotional support and help them rethink their situation so that their sadness has less potency. The person grieving over the break-up of a relationship might find it particularly helpful to be comforted, or to receive suggestions that help them consider how the relationship may not have been ideal for them. In the case of sadness, we would help them change either their emotional response or the thoughts leading to their emotional response.
Testing Out These Ideas
To find out whether different kinds of strategies should be used for those feeling anxiety and sadness, we used the internet to recruit people who were currently experiencing these emotions. In one study, people wrote about any kind of event that was causing them to feel anxious or sad. People experiencing anxiety often described financial or job-related issues, whereas people experiencing sadness often described the loss of a relationship. In another study, we asked people who were feeling anxiety and sadness from these kinds of events to write about them. We obtained permission to share the events anonymously with others.
Then, we recruited another group to be “helpers” who would respond to the people feeling anxiety and sadness. We were interested in seeing whether the two emotion management strategies—one to help others actively change their situation and the other to help them rethink, or change, their thoughts and emotional responses—would work differently for those experiencing anxiety as opposed to sadness.
As we predicted, people—both those experiencing anxiety or sadness, as well as the “helpers”—tended to think that strategies aimed at actively changing the situation would be more helpful for those feeling anxiety, whereas strategies that aimed to change one’s thoughts and emotional response would be more beneficial for sadness. For example, for those experiencing anxiety from financial worries, advice regarding concrete steps to address their situation was believed to be more helpful than responses that provided comfort or helped one rethink the problem. Conversely, for those feeling sadness, strategies aimed at decreasing someone’s negative emotions—such as providing comfort or helping someone rethink their situation—was believed to be more helpful. For example, words of encouragement that helped someone rethink a break-up (such as “You have done what you can, this is not your fault” or “Consider how the future might be better”) were thought to be more helpful than more concrete advice on what they could actively do (as in “The best thing to do is to take your mind off the situation and move on” or “Try to stay busy and focus on your goals”).
While there is no easy way to get through life’s difficulties, there may be clues as to what the best strategies are. Instead of turning to a preferred approach when trying to help others, such as automatically giving advice or attempting to mitigate their emotions, be mindful of the specific kinds of emotions others are experiencing—whether it be anxiety or sadness. These emotions can guide us to be as helpful as possible for those we care about.
For Further Reading
Doré, B. P., Morris, R. R., Burr, D. A., Picard, R. W., & Ochsner, K. N. (2017). Helping others regulate emotion predicts increased regulation of one’s own emotions and decreased symptoms of depression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(5), 729–739. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217695558
Maisel, N. C., & Gable, S. L. (2009). The paradox of received social support: The importance of responsiveness. Psychological Science, 20(8), 928–932. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02388.x
Shu, J., Bolger, N., & Ochsner, K. N. (2020). Social emotion regulation strategies are differentially helpful for anxiety and sadness. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000921
Jocelyn Shu completed her PhD in psychology at Columbia University. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher studying anxiety and emotion regulation at Harvard University.