We Want Your Feedback!

Please give us feedback on one of our weekly question and answer articles. We value your time so the evaluation will only take 3 minutes or less, we promise!

Take the Survey »

How to Communicate During Stressful Times

By Health and Wellness Intern, Emma Campbell & Professional Practice Extension Assistant Professor | Heart Initiative, Ashley Yaugher

Couple communicating


Effective communication can be difficult — pile on stressful events and it can feel impossible to keep your cool when things heat up. When we get stressed and our hearts start racing, the thinking part of our brain shuts down a bit and our emotional brain takes over. When this happens, it becomes difficult to see another person’s perspective and have compassion like we do under normal circumstances. Talking to someone can be a great way to relieve the stress, but you can also add more stress by communicating poorly in the heat of the moment. 

Paying attention to your body’s warning signs and stress signals is a great first step for effective communication. Some signs of stress include feeling more irritable, physical symptoms (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, etc.), and a harder time communicating (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2014). Knowing our own signs of stress and how to communicate during stressful times is important. Here are five tips on how to better communicate during stressful times:

  1. Use I-Phrases: I-phrases are a way of expressing an opinion, emotion, or another feeling through a first-person pronoun. Some examples of I-Phrases are, “Right now I am really frustrated”, "I am stressed when..." “I’m feeling really overwhelmed" (Burr,1990).                               
  2. Positive Body Language: Show positive body language by looking directly at the person you are speaking to. Remain open throughout the conversation by keeping your voice and tone low and not tensing your body. Lastly, you may find it beneficial to smile if appropriate (Paterson, 2000).
  3. Listen Without Interrupting: While the other person is speaking, be respectful and refrain from interrupting, arguing, or sharing your perspective until you understand what they are saying. Once they are done speaking, then you can politely share your point of view (Markman, et al. 2004).
  4. Validate the Other Person’s Feelings: It is crucial that you recognize and validate the other person's feelings, even if you do not agree with them. Validation is not agreement, but rather a way to communicate that you are listening and hearing the other person’s perspective or feelings. You can validate their feelings by acknowledging statements like, "That sounds like it made you feel very frustrated." or "I understand that you feel upset about..." (Darrington & Brower, 2012)
  5. Stay on Topic: Do not bring in old problems while discussing new problems; this will only complicate the conversation and frustrate everyone involved. Focus on the current problem and only one problem at a time using steps 1 through 4 above (Danes, 2020). 

Stress can make things difficult in many areas of your life. However, communicating effectively during stressful times is possible with the right tools and getting our own hearts right.  These five steps can help create calm conversations during stressful times. But remember, you can only control your own behavior, stress, and words, not what other people say or how they react. So be sure to use self-care and manage your own stress before and after difficult conversations, regardless of the outcome. Below are additional resources on communication skills and how to cope during stressful times.

Additional Resources