Dr. Nadine Greiner explains how to talk about your stress without stressing others out

Stress is a formidable force. Oftentimes, it is bigger than us, and we need to enlist the help of others to keep stress at bay. But it’s challenging to ask for help without spreading our stress levels to others. A trusted other can help us regain control of our emotions and think more clearly. If you’ve ever confided in a friend about a crappy day, you know that letting your concerns and worries out can be a solution in itself, leaving you calmer and more clear-eyed about the situation at hand.

Enlisting the help of others when you’re stressed can have many additional positive outcomes. It can leave you feeling calmer and in a healthier state of mind. And, when you open up and confide in friends, this can strengthen your relationship with them.  But when confiding turns into a rant, it reinforces your pent-up anger instead of releasing it, which can negatively affect both you and the person who is listening to you. According to an American Management Association (AMA) article, it’s important to ensure you’re not “indulging in self-righteous outrage”. The Association explains, “Self-righteous outrage puts us into an angry, resentful emotional state, hardly an optimal frame of mind to engage someone in a productive conversation.” 

Research has shown that co-rumination, or obsessively talking about an event or problem with someone else, can lead to higher stress, depression, and anxiety. Listeners can also encourage destructive negative emotions and fuel the fire, making the situation worse. There’s a fine line between productive sharing and the kind that pushes you both into a negative spiral.

So, the next time you want to blow off steam without stressing out your closest confidants—or escalating your own stress—keep these six strategies in mind.

  1. Is now a good time?

I have a close colleague whom I turn to whenever my emotions feel overwhelming. Occasionally, I’m so eager to launch into a detailed description of everything that’s bothering me that I lose sight of whether she actually has the capacity to listen.  

This isn’t an effective strategy. It can leave the listener feeling overwhelmed. Instead of jumping right in, it’s often to better to ask for permission. In many cases, we can become so inwardly focused, that we lose sight of those around us. Perhaps your confidant is in equally dire need of discussing their stress and bothers. Perhaps they aren’t in the right mental state to listen or help. Offer them an “opt-in” by asking for permission. Don’t assume they’re willing to listen. 

It’s best to test the waters and feel the other person first. Ask if it’s a good time to share your feelings. Ask if they are able to listen to you for five minutes. Before you unleash your tirade, make sure they buy-in. Doing so not only demonstrates that you respect their time, but also that you are mindful of the mental energy you’re asking them to provide.

2. Advice versus commiseration

Sometimes it’s frustrating to receive unsolicited and unwanted advice when what you really want is commiseration. You are in the driver’s seat. Without clear direction from you, the person on the other end of the rant is left to guess what kind of response you’re looking for. You need to be explicit. It’s also important to make sure the person has the capacity to meet your desired needs. 

You’ll gain the most from difficult conversations when you decide on a goal. This is critical, according to the American Management Association(AMA). The association explains, “Asking ourselves about our goal, what we hope the conversation will accomplish, helps us identify and eliminate unproductive, antagonism-generating agendas.” Clearly articulating what you hope to accomplish with the conversation might feel awkward at first, but it’s a win-win for all parties involved. As the person enlisting help, you’ll get what you’re looking for out of the interaction. At the same time, your trusted listener will understand how they can best support you.

2. What’s your tone?

The tone of your voice is often more important than the words that are emitted. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania study found that a mere 7% of our communication is transmitted through our spoken words, while 23% is transmitted through our voice tone and inflection.  that the majority of communication is transmitted non-verbally.

Tone is especially important when talking to others about your stress. No one wants to be shouted at, even if they’re not the driver sparking the anger. Kristene A. Doyle, director of the Albert Ellis Institute, a psychotherapy organization, explains that sometimes when you’re letting off steam, it can feel like you’re speaking in all caps. This can make the person listening uncomfortable or cause them to tune out altogether.

How do you avoid letting your tone dictate and derail the outcome of your conversation? Doyle suggests agreeing with your loved one on a phrase that will gently signal if your tone of voice or pitch becomes an issue. She explains, “Use a code word like ‘You’re getting heated’ to signal it’s a good idea to take a time out, calm yourself down, and come back to the conversation.” Doyle also recommends engaging in breathing exercises. By simply stopping and counting to ten, you can reset your pent-up emotions and cool yourself down. Finally, Doyle recommends writing down the points you want to get across during the conversation so you can remain focused as you get your concerns off your chest.

Reflection is also key. Doyle recommends asking for feedback after you’ve had your conversation. Review and reflect on the experience. What was it like for your partner? What can you do differently in the future to make sure you both feel like it was time well spent? Are there tweaks you can make to your approach? Would sitting rather than standing change the dynamics? Would wearing more comfortable clothing create a less stressful interaction? Everyone’s needs are different.

3. Have a time limit

When we’re discussing our stress, we often become fixated on one problem. But latching on to one problem and discussing it in great length can derail the conversation. Seven-time author and licensed Psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith, advocates for setting a time limit to avoid one issue dominating the valuable time you have with your confidant. He explains, “It’s important that you talk, but also that you don’t wear each other out.” 

Choose a timeframe that feels appropriate—five minutes, the time it takes to finish a glass of wine, one commercial break of a TV show. At the conclusion of your conversation, thank the person for listening and move on to another topic. 

4. You are responsible for your own stress

A common pitfall associated with discussing your stress with others is the tendency to avoid looking inwards. It’s easy to fall into the habit of mentally construing a pessimistic thought, and blaming everything around you, without first stopping to consider the alternatives. Before you enlist the help of others, try to acknowledge ownership of your stress and stabilize the situation. This might involve taking a walk around the block, writing down your stress triggers, or taking a hot shower to calm down.

There’s a key difference between disclosing the intimate specifics of one’s life and expecting a colleague or loved one will take responsibility for the distress. It’s best to gravitate towards the former. You are responsible for your own stress. While you can muster support from others, it’s ultimately up to you to regroup and carry on.  

5. Give and take

Business leader Paul Boese once remarked, “We come into this world head first and go out feet first; in between, it is all a matter of balance.” Balance is the key to successfully discussing your stress. It’s often advantageous to do a pulse check to evaluate if your help seeking is sucking all the air out of your relationships. Make sure your relationships are reciprocal. If your help seeking or help giving is primarily one-sided, it’s more likely that other aspects of your relationships such as reaching out and making plans to spend time together are one-sided as well. 

If you notice that your relationships are not reciprocal, it’s important to make an effort to revert them back to more equal footing. In my book, Stress-Less Leadership, I explain that each of your fingers can represent a solution to stress. Your “interpersonal” finger is one of your five “fingers” to wave goodbye to stress. Your relationships have a big impact on your overall wellbeing. Enlisting the help and console of someone else is one of the perks of having a strong relationship with another person. It’s a gift. In order to truly reap the rewards of your relationship, make sure you’re being thoughtful and respectful of the other person even as you ask for help. Stay tuned for the book to learn more about how you can flex your interpersonal finger, as well as your other four stress fingers. 

It’s challenging to effectively ask for help about your stress. The conversation can quickly veer off track and leave you worse off than before. Fortunately, by following a few simple tactics, you’ll be able to prime yourself—and your partner—for success. 

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D.is a San Francisco based executive coach, HR consultant, and speaker specializing in stress.  She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.  Her book, Stress-less leadership: How to lead in Business and Life, is available here.


  • Nadine Greiner PhD

    Human Resources Executive, Author


    Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. is a Human Resources executive who writes in her spare time. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them. As an organizational psychologist and an executive herself, Dr. Nadine understands intimately the pressures and demands executives face. She holds a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology, and her books can be found here: amazon.com/author/nadinegreiner