5 ways to de-escalate stressful situations

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Apr 8, 2024

5 ways to de-escalate stressful situations

Don’t be a bystander. Learn how to gently step in, and soothe stress, with these simple steps

It’s never easy to see someone else going through a stressful time. It can often leave us feeling hopeless, agitated, and maybe even stressed ourselves. But, with the right amount of caution and gentle management, there are several things that we can do to support those going through stress, helping them to manage their emotions in the moment, and also look forward to addressing the root of the problem. Here, with help from psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers, we explore five ways that you can step in to de-escalate stressful situations.

1. Be empathetic

We all appreciate being heard and having our feelings taken seriously, so this is a good place to start when you’re trying to support other people. “Utilise empathy to help the individual involved know that you care about how they feel, and understand why they are acting in this manner,” advises Lee. “A simple observation such as, ‘I can see how upset this has made you’, shows you understand their pain, you appreciate their concerns, and you’re treating them as an equal. Feeling heard and valued when in distress is a powerful defusing mechanism.”

2. Be respectful

When we’re at the height of emotion, we’re often also feeling quite vulnerable. According to Lee, respect is a powerful situational resolution tool when we find ourselves dealing with a very stressful situation. “Many times, when we’re stressed, it is likely something isn’t being respected, and if we can fill that gap it has an instant calming effect,” he says. “By giving a respectful compliment or statement, suddenly they will feel like a respected person, and this will shift their emotional balance to a more stable point.”

3. Pay attention

“Nothing fuels the fires of stressful situations more than a person who storms off, or is clearly not present,” says Lee. We don’t always need to offer up solutions – in fact, the heat of the moment is rarely the right time to do this – but being present and engaging in the problem in a sympathetic manner goes a long way. “Listen to the other party, ask questions, and be curious to understand why they feel that way,” Lee adds. “Just being there will allow them to process their own emotions, often getting more clarity and bringing themselves down from a high arousal state.”

4. Be mindful of mirroring

As humans, we get a lot of our social and emotional cues off each other, which is something you should keep at the front of your mind when facing a challenging situation. “If we remain calm, attentive, non- judgemental, and objective, they will start to adjust to your state, reducing the emotional charge,” Lee explains. “This can take some practise and effort on our behalf, as we tend to react immediately, instead of choosing our response. But if we can stop the initial feeling of being attacked, and it being personal, we can respond in a measured and rational way. So often, it isn’t the immediate trigger that has caused their feelings, but a build-up of events, and if we can look at the bigger picture, we can connect with them, rather than attack them.”

5. Ask gentle questions

Sometimes, stress is like an iceberg. You might be able to see the tip, but can’t see what’s going on below the waterline, or how deep it goes. So, if it feels appropriate, you might want to ask gentle questions to try to figure out the root of the problem. “Asking questions is an incredibly powerful way to show we are respectful, and summarising the other person’s concerns shows that we are listening and appreciating them,” says Lee. “You can even start to see if you can be part of the solution, as suddenly you become a supportive ally, and can move them on from ruminating on the issue causing the stress.”

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