Stress can be contagious. It’s an interesting paradox of human experience: our empathy strains under the weight of another’s hardship, causing us to absorb their stress and make it our own.
This concept is particularly significant when we help friends through tough times. While our intentions are good, this process can come at high costs to our own well-being. This article will guide you on how to navigate these changes effectively while you’re helping others.
5 Ways to Stay Healthy While Helping Your Friends
Whether you’re good at offering ways to help your anxious friends or you always lend an ear after your buddy has had a hard day, don’t forget that your own mental health matters too.
1. Be Realistic About How Much You Can Give
We don’t always have the bandwidth to help the people we care about. This doesn’t make us bad people. We all have a finite amount of physical and/or mental energy to give.
The spoon theory is often used to put this phenomenon into action. Say you start off with 10 spoons. Throughout the day, you give them to someone else when you perform a task or activity. If you have no spoons left and try to give one, you’re overexerting yourself.
Some of us have more or fewer spoons than others, but the idea is to never give more than you have. There will be days when helping a friend isn’t possible because you’re out of spoons.
Being upfront about this does two things: it ensures your mental health stays intact and encourages your friend to build a wider support network. If you set that expectation, then it’ll be easier to change your level of support, if necessary. Things will happen in your life where you’ll need to step back, and being honest about this will ensure your friendships stay healthy.
2. Set Hard Boundaries With Your Friends
Many of us are people pleasers and have a hard time checking in with ourselves and what we need. Saying “no” can be very scary, but boundaries are necessary in every single friendship.
Knowing your limits and expressing them is the best way to avoid resentment or anger. It’s also the best way to prevent further boundary-pushing, which can make it even harder to say no.
Remember that it’s okay to tell your friend that:
- They’re behaving in a way you find worrying or upsetting.
- Certain subjects trigger you, or you’re not comfortable discussing something.
- You can’t always be there for them because of your other commitments.
- A topic may be better discussed with a counselor or psychiatrist.
If a friend disrupts your boundaries after you’ve set them, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. They may be used to speaking or acting a certain way around you, and change can be slow. If they keep overstepping your boundaries after multiple reminders, it may be necessary to put some distance between them. Always remember your mental health is important, too.
3. Include a Wider Support Network
Your friend may be communicating with you because they don’t feel like they can speak to anyone else. This doesn’t mean that you need to be the sole person they confide in.
While being there for someone when they need it is a sign of a good friend, you’re not the only person responsible for them. If they don’t have the bandwidth to make new friends or if they truly feel cut off from their social network, consider speaking to your circle for some help.
Whether they’re friends, family members, coworkers, or other adults you trust, these confidants can provide you with great advice. They can also help you share the mental load.
But is it okay to share private information with an outside party? That depends on the information and how well you trust the person you’re confiding in. However, it’s a good idea to ask your friend first. If your friend isn’t comfortable with you repeating what they’re saying (and what they’re saying doesn’t put someone’s life in danger), then avoid spreading it around.
4. Tell Your Friends to Seek Help Outside the Friendship
There are many instances when it’s better for your friend to seek professional help for their mental health. While something as serious as expressing suicidal thoughts should be met with the same seriousness, other topics aren’t met with the same worry when they should be.
Here are some signs for when your friend should speak to a professional:
- They’ve been expressing the same problem or feelings for months. This could mean they aren’t taking your advice or that the advice you provide isn’t sufficient.
- They’re unable to control their emotions, experience changes in sleeping patterns, overuse substances, or there are changes in their performance at work or school.
- Their fears or worries seem too large for the situation. For example, they’re worried about being fired from their job when there isn’t any evidence of layoffs.
- They’re starting to withdraw from social situations. Even if they’re speaking to you, maybe they aren’t speaking to others, or they’ve stopped doing things they love.
- They’re experiencing a bout of unexplained physical illnesses. If they have stomach pain, aches, or headaches without cause, they could be incredibly stressed out.
You can also ask them to seek help if you don’t think you’ll be able to be there for them in the next while. This heads-up can give them a buffer to find a professional they trust.
5. Talk to Someone About How You’re Feeling
If you’re experiencing the same symptoms expressed in the last section, then you should also seek professional help. While we know you care for your friends, it’s very difficult for anyone to constantly be there for a person without experiencing some physical or mental distress.
Never think it’s okay to neglect your own needs. Make sure to spend some time on your own wellness by exercising, sleeping 7-9 hours a night, and doing the things you love. If you stay mentally healthy, you’ll have an easier time helping yourself and your friends and family.
In the face of shared stress and hardship, remember that your ability to support others shouldn’t come at the expense of your own health. Every step you take towards setting boundaries, encouraging professional help, and seeking support is an act of self-care while aiding another.