How To Be A Good Friend Even When You're Going Through Tough Times

Written by Caroline Muggia
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.

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Many of us are familiar with those times when it's difficult to be there for a friend. This could be for a variety of reasons but often comes down to the fact that you're going through challenging circumstances in your own life. For example, you know your friend is going through a difficult time in their relationship, but you're also struggling with a new health concern. These could be long-term stressors like financial or marital problems, a job hunt, or short-term stressors like sickness or work pressure.

For each of us, these stressors will be different as well as our reactions to them. Having a sick family member could be extremely hard and consuming for one person while for others this may not be as demanding.

Regardless of the severity and length of the stressor in your life, there are some things you can do to help you more easily navigate a friendship during hard times. Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D., an expert in the field of adult attachment theory and models and author of the new book The Power of Attachment, shares her thoughts on how to move through this friendship dilemma with greater clarity and ease for both parties.

Track your own experience.

One of the common ways we are there for friends and vice versa is through conversation. As humans, we are drawn to share and confide in others we trust. While this can be incredibly therapeutic, it's important to take care of yourself in conversation with friends who are telling you about their pain or challenges, especially if you are run-down from your own.

Heller explained that we can be present for a friend and in touch with our experience by practicing what she calls "tracking your own experience." To do this, you'll want to scan your body and notice areas that feel tense and those that feel more expansive; just notice, she said. If you're sitting in a chair, you can try wiggling your toes to bring some awareness into your feet or shift in your seat. "By moving our joints, that’s how our body tells our brain where we are in space," she said.

These awareness exercises can be done entirely without your friend knowing, or you can invite your friend to do the same. Staying grounded in your body through conversations about your pain or someone else's will help you to be there for another without overextending yourself emotionally or physically.

Set clear boundaries.

"It's important not be too self-sacrificing in terms of being emotionally bankrupt or exhausted to the point where you can't sleep or you're carrying everybody else's burdens," said Heller. It can be particularly difficult to set boundaries especially for someone with a caregiver personality because often "they teach everybody in their life that they're there for them but often miss how to make sure it's a reciprocal relationship."

A helpful way to avoid an empty tank when caring for a friend and yourself is to be specific and clear with your friend about what you can and can't do for them. You may tell your friend, for instance, that you don't know how to help with their marriage problems, but you could take care of their kids while they take some time for themselves.

Each of us will have different boundaries that feel comfortable for us, and when you decide what yours are, consider sharing them with your friend, so they know what to expect.

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Listen and stay present.

Often one of the first things we want to do when a friend is hurting is to fix the situation. Unfortunately, there are situations in which there's nothing you can do, and what the person really needs is someone to just listen.

In a conversation, there are some practices you can try to become more present for your friend. This could come in the form of physical touch if this is natural between you and your friend.

Heller points out when people are in stressful situations, it can be difficult to articulate what they want or need. It could take some experimenting before finding a practice that works for you and your friend. And it may require you just reminding them of your love and support by saying, "I'm here for you, I love you, and I care about you.”

Practice de-stressing exercises.

"One of the things with stress is we start to disconnect from our authentic self and disconnect from other people," said Heller. Finding ways to lower your stress and your friend's will help both of you work more clearly through your specific challenges.

Heller recommends an exercise where you think of your favorite thing to do or a loved one in your life for 20 to 30 seconds and notice what happens to your body. This simple act of directing your awareness away from the traumatic event or stressful conversation actually induces a relaxation response. "It gives you a little break; it helps your autonomic nervous system process and discharge stress when you touch into the stress a little bit and touch into a resource (a favorite memory or person)," she explained.

You can hold this positive experience for more than 30 seconds or do this multiple times a day. Over time, Heller explained, this experience could create new neural pathways in the brain and elicit a psychological shift from negative to positive. She said it goes beyond changing the way the brain experiences the stressor; it also regulates the nervous system: "It gets a chance to discharge the overarousal from stress related to the event you're talking about."

While you could practice this before, during, or after an interaction with a friend or on your own, you can also see if your friend would be interested in trying it out. If they would like to give it a try, ask them questions like, "What is in your life that you find you really love, or who in your life do you love?" These prompts could help them move into a positive state and give their nervous systems a break.

As helpful as the practices we've covered can be, there are situations in which it is necessary for you or a friend to seek professional help. You'll want to remind yourself and your friend that their advice cannot take the place of professional therapy or a doctor's visit. If you are willing and able, you can offer to drive a friend to their appointment or encourage them to seek help. Whether you're experiencing this in your friendships or not, chances are there will be a time, and it's great to be prepared.

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