The Four States of Distress: how to comfort someone when something bad happens to them.

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 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. 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

 

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

 

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