How can you help calm someone down? Most of us want to help people we love calm down when they are stressed, angry, or hurt. It can be frustrating feeling like you don’t know what to do.
What should you say to calm them down? Better yet, what should you not say? Is there something specific you can do?
Don’t fret, you don’t need anything other than your voice and your presence to help someone else calm down. That may not seem like much, but both things can be powerful tools.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
Using your voice and your words to help someone stay calm
Try to keep your own voice calm and steady. Christine Estes, a speech and language pathologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, explains “It’s very important to speak at a slower pace, which tends to be calming to the listener and makes it easier for them to understand what we’re saying.”
When I get excited, or not calm, I start speaking rapidly, and my pitch raises several octaves. There is a running joke that only dogs can hear me when I am worked up. If I was trying to calm someone down using that tone, it wouldn’t work very well!
She adds that “Using the appropriate level of loudness and volume for the setting is important,” she adds. “Usually a softer volume tends to calm people down and give them a feeling of relaxation.” So refrain from yelling or being loud in general.
Remember to breathe, as this helps keeps your own voice steady. Speak slowly and clearly, and don’t speak when they are speaking. Listening is one of the most overlooked ways to help calm someone down. When you do speak, though, the words you use matter. Use empathetic phrases, say their names, and give feedback on what you hear them say.
Just telling someone who is upset to “calm down” or “get over it” will have the opposite effect of what you are trying to do. Here are some things you can do instead! Start by asking open-ended questions like, “How did you feel when that happened?” Open-ended questions will require the person to think for just a moment before responding with a yes or no. That pause might give them a chance to help calm themselves.
NeverTheRightWord.com offers some great alternatives to common phrases that people say when they are trying to calm someone down that might work out a little better in providing comfort to someone else. Here are just a few (but they offer eight ‘counselor approved’ alternatives):
- I want to understand. They recommend trying something like this instead: “I think I understand what is happening here. I may be wrong though, so feel free to correct me. Now is not the right time to respond, my friend. Take a bit of time out and think about what you want to say properly.”
- Your feelings are justified, however… This doesn’t seem like you are taking the other person’s concerns seriously. Try this instead: “I completely understand you feeling angry in this situation, and you are right to feel wronged. I completely understand why you would want to lash out. Saying things in anger is not going to help resolve the matter in the long-term.”
- Distract yourself. They recommend saying this instead but point out that it might work better with someone you don’t know as well. (They caution that a close friend might redirect their anger to you). “Before you say something that you regret, shall we just go and get a drink/bit of food/a breath of fresh air?”
Words are powerful. Sometimes the ones we utter can help other people feel better. Other times, you might not have the right words, or they might not be in a talking mood. That is ok! Your presence itself might be just what they need, and there are things you can do to help calm them down that don’t require speaking.
“Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we’re peaceful, life will be peaceful.” – Marianne Williamson
Sometimes your presence is enough to help someone
Touch can be calming, and it doesn’t require words. Always ask before touching someone though, because if they dislike being touched, they will not find this calming, and you will only add to their anxiety and stress. Once they have given you permission, a light touch, like circular motions on their back or patting their shoulder, could help them become calmer.
Sara Menges explains that touch “increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood and relieve stress and anxiety. Dopamine is also known to regulate the pleasure center in your brain that can offset feelings of anxiety.”
Another hormone that humans release when being touched is oxytocin. This hormone helps human beings form an emotional connection to one another, which creates sensations that give us a sense of well-being and add to the happiness we feel.
If the person you are trying to comfort is craving touch, having them lean in against you will have the same effects as the other touches. However, this one allows them to physically rest for just a moment. It can make them feel safe and secure to know that they don’t have to hold themselves up and someone else is providing support, even if it’s just for a few moments.
I can always tell just how upset my teenager is by whether she crawls into my lap to cry or whether she sits and cries. Sometimes, we don’t have the strength to support ourselves and have a meltdown, and that is also ok.
Now for the person who doesn’t want to talk about it, and also doesn’t want to be touched, your presence alone can be helpful. What can you do to help someone calm down if you aren’t speaking or touching them? Well, that pretty much leaves breathing!
Take deep breaths while sitting next to them. Make sure to breathe in and out slowly. This will work better than reminding them to “just breathe” because the body will often subconsciously mimic the surrounding energy.
Given that fact, it is important that you manage the stress and anxiety that you are feeling. You don’t want to disrupt the other person’s flow. If you start feeling like you are getting overwhelmed, let them know you need to take a slight break and will be in the other room for a few minutes. Stay near enough that you can hear them, but take the time away to gather your thoughts. This will help you re-approach the situation in a way that might work a little better than the first time around.
“Breath is the power behind all things. I breathe in and know that good things will happen.” – Tao Porchon-Lynch
If someone needs more help than you can give them
If you have tried everything you can think of and the person is escalating or not getting any calmer, you might reach a point where they need more help than you can give them. Here are some signs to look for if this is a panic attack that might require medical attention. Ask the person if they have medicine that they take for panic attacks. Let them know you are going to seek emergency help if the person is experiencing these:
- chest pain that moves to their arms or shoulders (it might feel like someone is squeezing them)
- shortness of breath that isn’t improving
- pressure in the chest lasts more than a minute or two
“Being under stress is like being stranded in a body of water. If you panic, it will cause you to flail around so that the water rushes into your lungs and creates further distress. Yet, by calmly collecting yourself and using controlled breathing, you remain afloat with ease.” – Alaric Hutchinson
It is really hard to help someone during powerful emotions calm down, but try to stay empathetic and respectful of their feelings. Keep breathing, listen to what they are saying, and validate their feelings. I’m guilty of trying to give advice, and this something I have to watch. They really don’t need advice at this moment.
Do what you can from a place of love, and just know that sometimes all they need is a calm voice and a calm presence, but there might be times when they need more than that. Recognizing that they need some additional help can be a great use of your voice and your presence in their time of need.