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How to Help Someone Calm the Fuck Down

Turns out, ‘Hey man, just chill out,’ doesn’t really cut it

One of the worst ways to get someone to calm down is by telling them to calm down. To anyone in crisis, it can feel like the equivalent of a slap in the face and is only gonna make matters worse. “Being told to keep your emotions under control can appear like a brush off, or worse, seem like the other person is uninterested or uncaring,” explains marriage counselor and life coach Sam Nabil

For all intents and purposes, it’s the equivalent of that old movie trope, later satirized in Airplane! and Clue:

Admittedly, when faced with someone who’s losing their temper, hyperventilating in tears or experiencing any other sort of emotional outburst, most of us prefer to slowly exit the room rather than stick around to be the calm in the storm. But while it might seem intense, if not impossible, there are ways to diffuse the situation. Such as… 

Take a Seat

It’s natural to want to mirror another person’s energy and emotions, especially if it’s someone we care about. But if you want to calm a person down, it’s important to fight that instinct and do the exact opposite. “Sit down,” psychotherapist Heidi McBain suggests. “Taking a seat is going to immediately decrease any perceived threat to the other person’s brain. And if they sit with you, it will increase their own feelings of safety and defuse immediate crisis signals in their brain.”

Moreover, by speaking in a slower, softer tone, it taps into the other person’s impulse to mirror you, and may bring them down without you having to tell them to chill out.  

Give Them a Piece of Gum 

There are numerous grounding techniques experts recommend to inspire calm, but most of them are better used on ourselves in moments of panic. For example, when someone is in crisis, telling them to name five things in the room — a popular grounding technique — will just result in them naming you the asshole in the room. Luckily, there are other, more subtle grounding techniques you can use in such instances, a la provoking their sense of taste or smell, because “using the senses puts one back in their body, calming their nervous system,” McBain explains.  

Several studies show that chewing gum helps with anxiety for this reason, and why do you think we’re always giving glasses of water to people who are crying? Sure, it’s important to rehydrate from all those tears, but just the taste of cold water can be enough to bring someone out of fight-or-flight mode and back into the present. (The same goes for lighting incense or a scented candle.) 

Ask a Lot of Questions 

If someone is worked up and you don’t know what to do, when in doubt, try to gather more information. Namely, Nabil says: “Ask the person how you can lessen their stress or how you can help with the situation.” This will give them a chance to process how they feel and time to get out of the aforementioned fight-or-flight mode, which can take up to 30 minutes. It also gives them the power to direct the conversation. 

If at some point you want to offer advice like deep breathing or the distraction of a funny YouTube video, ask if they’re open to it first, which will increase the chances of it being received in a productive way.

Take a Walk 

I know, I know. But talking out the crisis can be more effective while on a walk, because like other grounding techniques, it provokes the senses and offers the opportunity for distractions without changing the subject. Light physical activity also releases endorphins, being outside has a calming effect, and lastly, there’s evidence that walking side-by-side specifically makes people more comfortable opening up. 

Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

Not all of us are big huggers, but there’s a surprising amount of research that shows how hugs and physical touch can release oxytocin, improve communication and reduce pain — all of which add up to a calmer person. When a hug is welcome — it’s obviously important to ask first — just the act of squeezing back will help release tension, psychotherapist John Carnesecchi explains. 

It’s crucial to remember, though: “This is not your crisis,” Carnesecchi says. Once you’ve tried all of the strategies above, it’s okay to set boundaries and walk away. When someone is seemingly in a consistent state of crisis or not receptive to help, it’s an indicator that they haven’t been taking care of themselves for a long time. And again, it’s not your fault for not being able to solve it. “This is where the support of health-care professionals must come into play,” Carnesecchi explains. “Because the chances are high that they’ll need more help than you can give.”