Research has shown time and again how beneficial friendships are for your mental health, life satisfaction, and overall well-being. However, understanding what kind of social support you need is a deeper and more nuanced conversation.
Sometimes, certain friends can actually stress you out or keep you stuck in your problem, rather than being a comforting and uplifting presence. If you are already upset or under duress, it can be hard to tell whether confiding in them is making it better or worse.
Here are three ways to understand whether your friend is stressing you out and how to choose the right person to talk to instead.
1. How You Feel Around Them
Pay attention to your emotions and the sensations in your body before, during, and after confiding in your friend. Do you feel anxious, tense, or heavy in your body?
While it is entirely possible that the topic of conversation is making you feel this way, these feelings can also offer insight into how safe you feel speaking with this particular person and how helpful the conversation is to you.
You can also gauge your stress levels by observing how you feel about yourself around them. You could feel unsafe, unworthy, and unhappy if your friends continuously interrupt, criticize, invalidate, or minimize your experiences. While your friends are not responsible for magically fixing every problem you have or completely transforming your mood, it is important to see if you feel valued, encouraged, heard, and understood by them.
A 2014 study showed that participants who received active listening responses (like expressing interest, paraphrasing the speaker, and asking relevant questions) felt more understood than participants who received either advice or simple acknowledgments. Another study highlights how high-quality listening from another person can satisfy basic psychological needs, reduce defensiveness, bridge differences, and even motivate change.
This is why it is important to remind yourself that you do not have to be vulnerable or open with anyone, no matter how close, if they make the problem worse.
2. You Are Co-Ruminating With Them
Another sign that venting to a friend might be hurting you is when they amplify your fears.
A 2023 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at how stress can spread through an individual’s social environment found that people tend to select and reach out to friends who are as stressed as they are.
The study also found that people’s stress levels change to resemble their peers’, especially when their circle of friends operates at the same level of stress. The researchers suggest that intentionally avoiding such co-rumination with your friends can help buffer this transmission of stress.
A 2020 study also found that seeing your friends’ mental distress can also stress you out. If people around you are ruminating, it is only a matter of time until you too climb onto the hamster wheel of unhelpful thought loops and lose your objectivity.
It is important to note the difference between empathy and an unhealthy lack of emotional boundaries between friends. Empathy has been linked to greater friendship quality and closeness and is necessary to feel validated and acknowledged by our friends.
However, there is such a thing as over-empathizing, where even a well-intentioned friend can make the conversation about their own struggles rather than focus on you. While some bias is inevitable, it is important to know if the person you’re talking to can hold their own opinions as well as consider what would objectively be best for you.
3. They're Not Emotionally Available to You
Does your friend check in with you from time to time or are they only available to you on rare occasions at their convenience?
While there is nothing wrong with having a friend with whom you have long, in-depth conversations only so often, for more consistent emotional support, it makes sense to lean on someone more emotionally available.
Apart from their actual availability to speak, you should also determine how emotionally available a friend of yours is by noticing if they shy away from deeper or difficult conversations, if they tend not to ask how you’re feeling, or if they avoid sharing their own thoughts and emotions.
A final factor to consider is the way a friend responds to you, as it can make or break the atmosphere of emotional safety. For example, while giving you feedback, their honesty does not have to be “brutal.” Additionally, they also needn’t give unsolicited advice or try to “fix” the issue immediately.
Relying on your support system is fundamental to your well-being. The right kind of support can be a great buffer for stress. However, you may need to use some discernment to understand which type of friend to reach out to and when, as this can impact the way you feel and process life events. Avoiding co-rumination and understanding the kind of emotional availability that each of your friends brings to the table can help you avoid future stress and maintain supportive, emotionally healthy friendships.
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