People cry for a lot of reasons. Today I particularly want to talk about how to respond when someone is crying quietly due to stress, distress or feeling overwhelmed. This most often happens to those who suffer from anxiety, but can happen to anyone lacking of energy due to insomnia or a virus or anything.
So, I’m going to start with what led me to choose this topic, the option of responding or not responding to a crying person, then a step-by-step of how best to respond.
So, a few weeks ago I was talking to a 14 year old girl who, like me, has anxiety. Unluckily for her, she doesn’t have my stable self esteem and she’s still in high school. Not fun.
Anyway, we were talking, and she was a bit upset (not crying, just really disappointed and unhappy). That day in class she’d been crying and no one, no one noticed. I expressed my surprise, and she admitted that she was trying to hide her tears. For an anxious person, all that attention on top of already feeling overwhelmed is not pleasant.
I mentioned how frustrating it was, desperately wanting someone to notice your tears, while desperately not wanting anyone to notice. She agreed emphatically. I’m sure many others are familiar with the intense struggle.
So, yesterday, I cried. I was in a job network / support place for the first time, and things weren’t going as I’d expected and I’d received a ridiculously cookie-cutter solution and I was upset. I was distressed.
My prefrontal cortex that does all the logical thinking had surrendered to my anxiety. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do. Tears formed in my eyes as a lady stood in front of me, holding out a form and asking me to sign. Droplets formed as I signed, the words a blur.
I was barely crying. I was crying silently. But I was crying. I was pretty clearly crying. And the lady handed me another document, telling me it had my details for my next appointment and I could leave now. No, “would you like to stay a few more minutes to calm down”, no, “would you like to talk to someone?”, not even an “are you okay?”
To Respond, Or To Not Respond
As I mentioned, when crying (particularly in public, or in front of people you aren’t very familiar with), there is a battle of desires. Of wanting someone to notice. Of dreading that someone would notice.
Well, I’ve reached a conclusion. It is better to respond to a crying person than to pretend you don’t notice. The crying person will be uncomfortable, but it will be temporary. The pain they will feel at being unnoticed can last days.
But how, exactly, do you respond to a crying person? We often feel insufficient to the task. But it’s actually not as complicated as you think.
The Guide To Responding To Tears
So, you see someone crying. First step is to remember that pretending you don’t see their tears is worse than coming up to “bother” them. Okay? Now let’s look at “bothering” them without bothering them too much.
Step 1: Offer Time
The first step is to offer them time. Ask them something like, “do you need a few minutes?” What you’re doing is giving them time to let their emotions work through, not pressuring them to bottle it all up.
However you word it, be sure to keep it a “yes” or “no” question. The last thing a crying person wants to do is have a discussion. Simple questions that can be responded with a nod or shake of the head are ideal.
And when I say “questions”, I mean the different variations of this one question. Don’t ask them several questions about whether or not they want time. Just one.
If they say “no”, they don’t need time, you can slowly direct them back to the task you were doing, or start chatting with them. If they do need time, on to step 2!
Step 2: Offer Company or Space
The next step is to determine whether your presence is a support or hindrance. Ask “would you like me to stay”, or “do you want to be alone for a bit?”
Again, keep to the “yes” or “no” questions, and only ask them once. So, combined with the previous step, you only ask them two questions. Don’t bombard them.
Step 2.1: Physical Touch
When someone is crying due to stress or feeling overwhelmed, they are likely squeezing their body into the smallest space possible, giving off the vibe that they do not want to be touched. Sometimes being touched it good. It serves as an anchor. Other times it just adds another stimulus onto an already struggling brain.
After the two questions in step 1 and step 2, we’ve finished interrogating the person. Okay? Finished. So, for touch, you need to experiment. If you get the feeling that it might help, hold their hand. Watch for tensing of the shoulders and legs for signs of discomfort. If they squeeze your hand, that’s usually a good sign, unless they squeeze quickly then pull back a little.
If you can’t reach their hand (because they’re fiddling with something, or sitting on their hands), place a hand on their arm or knee, or sit so your arm and leg lightly rests against theirs. Then watch carefully for signs of tensing or withdrawal in the shoulders and legs.
If you touch them and it doesn’t seem to help, don’t say anything, just move back a little and silently wait near them.
“Are You Okay?”
A default question is, “are you okay?” Seriously? They’re crying. Of course they’re not okay. This question really isn’t necessary in this situation.
If you find yourself accidently blurting it out, quickly flick to step 1 before they waste energy trying to formulate an answer, warring between the side of them that wants to be honest and the side that doesn’t want to admit vulnerability.
Step 3: Wait
The next step is to wait patiently. Try to relax, don’t fiddle or pace or do anything that could increase the person’s sense of anxiety. Don’t tap your foot or do anything that could be misinterpreted as impatience.
Wait for the person’s emotions to naturally finish and calm down, and wait for them to speak up or make eye contact and smile a little. If they asked for space in step 2, silently check up on then from a distance every couple of minutes. And wait until they are ready.
A Note on Hyperventilation and Hysterics
As I mentioned at the start, this article is in regard to quiet or silent crying due to stress or feeling overwhelmed. If someone is in hysterics or hyperventilating — often a sign of a panic attack — the response is quite different.
In this situation you need to actively help them calm down. Take their hand or arm, and tell them to focus on your hand. Once you have their attention somewhat, help them take slow, deep breaths by counting and breathing with them.
When they inevitably fail to take normal breaths, tell them it’s okay and try again. Once they’ve calmed down, you can go onto step 1 and step 2. If they struggle to answer, wait a few minutes and ask again.
If possible avoid asking any questions at all until they’ve calmed down. If you’re interested, there are other techniques you can learn to help calm yourself or someone else down from this situation.
Remember, next time you see someone crying quietly or silently: Don’t ignore them. Offer them time to cry. Offer them company or space. Then wait until they are ready to engage with other activities.