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How to comfort someone: Understanding the Four States of Distress

Updated: Mar 25




When a friend or loved one has something bad happen to them, what should you do to help them feel better? This question can be difficult to answer because people have different personalities and want different things at different times: empathy, problem-solving, optimism, distraction, and so on.


Check out this previous study we ran where people gave divergent answers about what they want from a friend after something bad happens.

We propose that there are four general states that a person may be in when something bad happens, and that knowing which of these states they are in can help you figure out how you can best comfort them.



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The key distinctions we draw here are that when something bad happens to you, at first you may not yet comprehend what’s happening. Then you may feel bad but not yet want those emotions to go away. After that, you may be ready to start feeling better, and finally, you may want help with problem-solving. Often when you try to comfort somebody and it seems to make things worse, it’s because you are offering assistance that is best given at a different stage. For example, trying to cheer someone up when the person is still in a stage where they do not want to feel better yet, or offering advice when they are still too upset to hear it.

Note that we are only considering non-emergency situations for this model, since emergencies require immediate action. Furthermore, note that while people do not always pass through all of these different states when something bad happens (so they are not really “stages” per se), when they do all occur, they tend to happen in a predictable order.

The Four States of Distress Model

State 1: Shocked or confused


When something negative and unexpected occurs, we may need time to understand what actually happened and how we feel about it. A friend can help facilitate that process. If you know someone in this state, you can help them understand what happened and how they feel about it.

Most common potential emotions: shock, confusion, surprise, fear, dread, denial

  • Example situation 1: your friend comes home from vacation and finds that their apartment is wrecked.

  • Example situation 2: your friend who thought their relationship was going great is suddenly dumped by their partner.

Strategies more likely to be helpful:

  • Active listening

  • Helping to resolve confusion

  • Expression of concern

  • Validating their confusion

  • Reflecting back to them your understanding of what they have said

State 2: Feeling bad and not ready to feel better


When we’re feeling strong negative emotions we may actually want to be feeling them. For instance, if someone we love dies, we likely will want to be sad about it for some period of time. Or if we are betrayed, we may well want to stay angry at the person for a while because we feel that anger is deserved. If you know someone in this state, you can help them express their feelings and feel validated.

Most common potential emotions: intense forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, jealousy

  • Example situation 1: your friend whose home was wrecked is feeling highly anxious about the expensive damages and furiously angry at the person whom they let stay there while they were gone

  • Example situation 2: your friend who was broken up with yesterday is feeling very sad about the loss of the relationship

Strategies more likely to be helpful:

  • Active listening

  • Empathy

  • Validating their emotions

  • Reflecting back to them your understanding of what they have said

  • Help them get into a mind set where they are ready to feel better

State 3: Feeling bad but wants to feel better


After feeling bad for a while, at some point we are likely to get sick of those negative feelings and wish that we could feel better again. At this point, a friend can help alleviate those negative feelings. If you know someone in this state, you can help them feel better.

Most common potential emotions: intense to moderate forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, jealousy [same list as State 2]

  • Example situation 1: your friend whose home was wrecked is still feeling anxious about the cost of replacing their possessions and angry at the person who caused the damage, but they are sick of thinking about it all the time and want to move past it

  • Example situation 2: your friend who was broken up with still feels very sad about it, but wants to feel better, move on, and focus on the future

Strategies more likely to be helpful (note that this section is especially person dependent, with different people having different Comfort Languages):

  • Optimism and reframing (e.g., seeing it in a less negative light or finding a silver lining)

  • Physical comforting (e.g., a hug)

  • Validating their emotions

  • Distraction (e.g., doing a fun activity)

  • Helping them explore and understand their feelings

  • Problem-solving (especially if there is a way to quickly fix much of the problem)

Since people really do differ in their preferred ways to be comforted (e.g., some people love optimism while some hate it, some people love hugs and others don't like to be touched), it's really important at this stage to use your knowledge of the person to figure out how to best comfort them. If you don't know, you can simply ask them how you can help them feel better, and then suggest options that they can choose from.

State 4: Feeling better and wants solutions


When we’re feeling intensely bad, it’s often both difficult and unappealing to problem-solve. After we start to feel better, however, we may start to feel motivated to find a way to improve our situation. A friend can be very helpful at this point in helping us think through potential solutions or by volunteering to help directly. If you know someone in this state, you can help them move forward past the problem.

Most common potential emotions: more manageable or minor forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, or jealousy

  • Example situation 1: your friend whose home was wrecked is feeling somewhat less bad about it, but now they want help figuring out how they are going to get their stuff replaced and whether they can get the guest who caused the damage to pay.

  • Example situation 2: your friend who was broken up with is feeling somewhat less bad about it and wants your help meeting someone new.

Strategies more likely to be helpful (though your choice will depend on the person and your relationship to them):

  • Brainstorming solutions

  • Problem solving

  • Advice

  • Volunteering your time to actually help on the solution

  • Providing resources to help solve the problem


Best strategies to comfort someone

So, the next time a friend or loved one has had something bad happen to them, consider applying the The Four States of Distress Model by considering which of the four states they are likely in:

  1. Shocked or confused – you can help them figure out what happened and how they they are feeling

  2. Feeling bad and not ready to feel better – you can listen empathetically and validate their feelings

  3. Feeling bad but wants to feel better – you can help them feel better using their preferred Comfort Language

  4. Feeling better and wants solutions – you can help them figure out what to do



What to say to comfort someone


Our study suggests that it’s probably best to avoid trading stories. So, don’t respond by telling the person you’re comforting about a similar thing that happened to you. Our study also suggests that saying something empathetic is the safest bet. This means showing that you understand and share their feelings. Phrases like “I’m so sorry this happened” and “gosh, that’s awful” are good for this, but it will also help to pick out some detail of how they’re feeling and describe how you feel it too.


For example, if you are comforting someone who has lost a beloved pet dog, you could say something like, “I'm so sorry. She was such a wonderful dog. I will miss her and mourn for her too. It’s an honor to mourn for such a special friend, and I am lucky to have known her.”


On top of that, here are some examples of words you can use to comfort someone, depending on which state they’re in. And, remember: it’s okay to ask someone which state they’re in. You might start by asking “I’m here for you and I want to help you the best way I can. Can you tell me how you’re feeling? Are you shocked and confused, are you at the stage where you need to feel bad and aren’t ready to feel better, or are you looking for solutions?”



What to say to someone who is shocked or confused (State 1)


Try active listening.

  • When the person you are comforting is talking, make sure you verbally show that you are listening by using short phrases like “I see”, “that makes sense”, and “I understand.”

  • Pick out key points from what they are saying, and rephrase them to show understanding: “It sounds like you’re saying that…”

  • Ask questions!

Help to resolve their confusion by prompting them to think through what might have happened and how they are feeling about it. You can say things like “This is really awful. Do you think you know why this happened?” and “What a rough situation. How are you feeling about it?”


Express your concern with phrases like “That’s dreadful, I really feel for you.” and validate their confusion by saying things like “It makes total sense that you’d feel that way. I would too!”



What to say to someone who is feeling bad and not ready to feel better (State 2)


Again, active listening is important.

  • When the person you are comforting is talking, make sure you verbally show that you are listening by using short phrases like “I see”, “that makes sense”, and “I understand.”

  • Pick out key points from what they are saying, and rephrase them to show understanding: “It sounds like you’re saying that…”

  • Ask questions!

Express empathy by showing that you understand and share their feelings. There’s no one-size-fits-all thing to say to express empathy but saying things like “I’m so sorry this happened” and “gosh, that’s awful” can help. If you are able to find some feeling you both share about the situation, it can help to mention that.


Validate their emotions by saying things like “It makes total sense that you’d feel that way. I would too!”


Help them get into a mindset where they are ready to feel better. Consider how you can make it easier for them to move towards feeling better when they are ready to do so, but also respecting their need to feel bad. For example, depending on the scenario, you might say “It’s okay to take time to really experience your feelings. Feeling sad is important. And when you’re ready, I’ll help by driving you to the doctor’s. I’m here for you.”



What to say to someone feeling bad but wants to feel better (State 3)


Reframe the problem in more optimistic terms. This can involve trying to find a silver lining or something to be grateful for. For example, after a breakup you might say “Well, at least you’ll have more time for that hobby you’ve not done in a while!”


If the person you are comforting describes their situation in extreme terms, then reframing the problem might involve challenging their extreme language. For example, if they say they’ll never be happy again, you could try saying something like “If you heard about someone else in this situation, do you think you’d agree that they’d never be happy again?”


Ask if they want physical comforting (such as a hug).


Validate their emotions by saying that it’s understandable that they feel the way they do. Tell them you’d feel the same in their shoes or that you do feel the same.


Offer distractions. Suggest going out for a fun activity.


Help them explore and understand their feelings by asking them open-ended questions about how they feel.


Help with problem-solving (especially if there is a way to quickly fix much of the problem). See the next state for more tips on how to do this.



What to say to someone feeling better and wants solutions (State 4)


Kick-start the process by getting a pen and paper and saying “Let’s brainstorm solutions.”


Volunteer your time and resources to help with the solution. If they need to go somewhere, offer to go with them or drive them. If they need to make appointments, offer to make the calls for them. If they need to look into solutions, offer to research with them or do some research yourself before you talk to them.



Did you like this article? We also have a full podcast episode about Comfort Languages and Nuanced Thinking that you may like:



Click here to access other streaming options and show notes.


1 Comment


Toos Töben
Toos Töben
Oct 26, 2023

This is great! Thank you :)

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