The idea of taking a moment for yourself when someone is struggling may seem counterintuitive—you just want to help, so how can helping yourself ultimately help them? But the key, says Brewer, is to slow down, take a breath, so you’ll be well-equipped to respond in a calm, actionable way.
“I learned something in medical school: When one of my patients is having a heart attack, the first thing I need to do is take my own pulse,” says Brewer. “That’s not to say [you should] ignore your patient, but it’s to say, ‘Hey, make sure you are not freaking out.’ Because if I start freaking out, I’m going to cause more trouble for my team.”
Meaning, you can’t expect to help others if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself; as many other experts say, you can’t run on an empty tank. Try to keep yourself grounded, Brewer says—you can try body scans, quick breathwork exercises, and more.
What’s more, Brewer shares that the impulse to jump in immediately can end up backfiring: “If there’s a family member that is anxious, for example, our brain says, ‘Oh, that’s unpleasant. We don’t want them to suffer. I’m going to do something.’ So we often try to do something quickly to make their anxiety go away, which is really about us trying to make ourselves feel better, even subconsciously.”
So instead of offering solutions right off the bat and potentially overwhelming your loved one (and yourself) sit back and listen. Ask follow-up questions, and really try to hear what they’re saying. “I learned a great line in residency,” Brewer adds. ‘”Don’t just do something; sit there.’ My job, instead of jumping up and saying, ‘Let’s fix your anxiety’, is to sit there, so I can really hear what’s happening. And even that helps to create a therapeutic alliance, so that I can step in and help and understand where to start.”