In uncertain times, people turn to friends and family for emotional support. The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it unprecedented uncertainty. People worry not just about whether they or loved ones have been exposed to the virus, but about their economic wellbeing and how they can safely shop for food. People are house-bound, and food and household goods can be hard to find. With this new normal comes increased levels of anxiety, so finding the best way to offer emotional support to those who are stressed is more important than ever.

Social support can ease emotional distress, improve physical and psychological well-being, and strengthen personal relationships, but it helps if it's done right. A group of researchers from Penn State University looked at how people responded to different messages offering emotional support. They found that messages tailored to validate the recipient’s feelings did a better job of relieving anxiety than messages that tried to minimize or dismiss a person's anxious feelings.

“...[S]howing empathy and listening would be particularly helpful during this difficult time.”

Messages of support can be counterproductive and increase stress depending on how they are worded, XiXi Tian, lead author of the study, told TheDoctor. An example of a useful, person-centered message of emotional support might be, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.” Less productive would be a critical message like, “Nobody is worth getting worked up about. Stop being so depressed.”

The study analyzed responses from 325 married adults who had experienced a disagreement with their partner. Participants were asked to think about someone with whom they had recently discussed their relationship, and to imagine having a conversation about the marital disagreement with that person. Then they were given an online questionnaire that presented one of six possible supportive messages and asked to imagine their friend giving them that message.

Participants rated the message they were given based on how controlling they felt the message was, how explicit it was and how logical they felt it was. The messages showed low, medium and high levels of person-centeredness. “We manipulated the messages based on how well the message recognizes, validates or acknowledges the participants’ emotions, feelings and experiences,” Tian, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, explained.

Low person-centered messages were perceived as controlling, so that participants actually reported feeling angry after receiving the message or simply reading it.

Person-centered messages, such as sharing an anecdote about a similar experience, helped put a person’s feelings in perspective, and made the recipient's feelings more manageable.

It may be helpful for people to talk about what they particularly find distressing about the coronavirus pandemic. Many people are worried about job security during the pandemic, and the impact of job loss on their financial situation. Or they may be missing family members or work routines. When it comes to job loss, a supportive message would be one that recognizes how hard the loss of a job and paycheck are. Messages that express empathy can encourage people to talk about their emotions. “So showing empathy and listening would be particularly helpful during this difficult time,” Tian said.

The study is published in the Journal of Communication.