How To Provide Emotional Support To Patients And Their Families?

Emotional support comes in many forms and is used to help people who’re going through tough times. Every patient’s needs vary, and your approach may not always be as rewarding or conclusive as you think. Your patient may be simply looking for a person who can listen to their needs and with whom they can be more expressive. Showing compassion and empathy during this is more important than you may think. Keeping a non-judgmental attitude and understanding how your patient feels is one of the ideal approaches. The more comfortable your patient is with you, the more expressive they will be, and the better the results of your endeavors will be. Taking care of your patient’s family and yourself is also something you should look out for.

Learning how to provide emotional support to patients is one of your responsibilities as a provider. Hence, I’m here to guide you on what you should and should not do, using my years of experience in the emotional support industry. So, trust your gut as we discuss some of the effective ways to handle patients who are going through emotional distress.

Understanding Emotional Distress

As a provider, you’ll be meeting new patients every day. Sometimes you’ll be dealing with multiple patients going through emotional distress. In such cases, your patients will struggle to cope with their emotions. This can be due to a traumatic experience or a long-term illness. Due to this, they can experience many different emotions, such as:

  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Regret
  • Denial
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Loneliness
  • Shock
  • Sadness
  • Resentment
  • Helplessness
  • Acceptance
  • Relief

Understanding what your patient is currently going through and their needs can help you direct your approach in the right direction.

What Is Actually Emotional Support, And What Is Not?

While emotional support can be of many types, in general, it’s about showing compassion and care for your patient. For this, you can use different approaches, whether verbal or nonverbal. Emotional support makes it easy for a person to cope with their feelings, experiences, and emotions. It helps them know they aren’t alone. As a provider, you can make a significant difference in your patients’ happiness and health with the way you approach them.

Qualities Of Emotional Support

I can’t emphasize enough that every type of emotional support is different. Your approach to handling the patient can vary based on the situation, current condition, and other things such as social and cultural norms. But, even if this is the case, there are a few qualities of emotional support that apply in almost every situation:

Here’s how you can make your emotional support approach more effective:

  • Always be respectful of your patient. You must treat them with dignity and consideration, as they need your help.
  • Never, I repeat, never be judgmental about your patient’s feelings, perspectives, or thoughts. Always follow a non-judgmental approach.
  • Be compassionate. A patient in need requires your sympathy, understanding, and reassurance.
  • Offer your care unconditionally. Even if your patient doesn’t show or react to what they want, you must know what type of support you want to give them without them asking you.
  • Be more person-centered. Show your patient you’re there to help them with their needs and wants.

Some Real-Life Examples Of Emotional Support

As the founder of Alnicor Consulting, I have met many health practitioners in the healthcare industry in my 16 years of service. During this time, I taught many doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers how to handle their patients more effectively. This is especially true when your patient is in need and requires emotional support.

So, for this, I guide them on how they can offer more effective emotional support to their patients. These examples include:

Active Listening

Obviously, you can’t understand what your patient is actually looking for until you’ve met them once. However, one thing is clear: you can learn about your patient by talking to them. We practitioners call this technique active listening. To execute this technique, start by conversing normally with your patient. During this conversation, you’ll have to be an attentive listener. You may initiate the talk, but try to let your patient talk about it as much as possible. So, engaging directly with your patient is the key here.

Your patient may be looking for a helping hand or someone they can rely on. If they see that you’re concerned about them, they will understand that what they are saying to you matters.

So, to make it clearer, here’s how you actively listen to your patient:

  • Give the patient your undivided attention.
  • Let them talk, and you must listen to them without passing any judgment.
  • You can ask them some questions to understand their experiences better.
  • End the conversation by verbally summarizing what your patient has conveyed. Also, you must reflect on what they have told you.

Asking these small questions and responding to what they have just said can help your patient feel that they are being heard. Your questions must trigger a response from your patient and must not be confusing, as they can hinder the flow. Keep them as simple as possible, such as:

  • “What happened after that?”
  • “How do you feel about it?”
  • “That’s really frustrating.”

Love, Care, And Encouragement

Everyone has some loved ones they genuinely care about. Your daily conversations with them and eating lunch together are your way to express your love for them, which may not be verbal. However, when people are looking for emotional support, they may want people to tell them they love them. So, telling your patient that they are loved is a great way to approach them. So, for example, if you have a patient who has recently gone through a breakup or is experiencing relationship issues, they may want to hear something like this:

  • “Don’t worry; I am here for you.”
  • “Your family loves you no matter what.”
  • “I will listen to you as long as you want.”

Empathizing And Validating

Another essential part of emotional support that I always discuss with my colleagues and clients is empathizing with my patients’ experiences as much as possible. When you tell them that what they are experiencing, and feeling is normal, you validate their feelings, which is important. Here, the term “normal” holds a huge weight in itself. You can also use the term “OK,” as it’s also a way to empathize with your patient.

So, for example, if you get a patient who is grieving, you can help them by saying:

  • “I understand if you feel angry.”
  • “Yes, it’s normal to experience mixed feelings during such testing times.”

However, as a provider, you’ll see many patients going through many different things. So, you can’t have all those experiences while helping them emotionally. It’s difficult to empathize with your patient’s emotions if you have not experienced them. And as you’ll get into such situations occasionally, you must understand that it’s normal and be honest with your patient. Yes, you heard it right; telling your patient you don’t have the same experience is OK.

However, you can still acknowledge your patient’s pain by saying:

  • “I can only imagine how you must have felt.”
  • “That must be so difficult for you.”
  • “I’m sorry that you’re going through this.”


Well, I did mention how crucial it is to listen to your patient and what they are experiencing through the active listening technique. So, when they express their feelings and try to open up with you, ensure you don’t disturb the session by throwing in some unrequested advice. Let them talk, express their feelings, and understand what they are going through without disturbing the process.

How Should You, As A Provider, Be Emotionally Supportive?

Now, from the above examples, you know what an emotional support session looks like. However, your approach doesn’t have to depend on that totally. You can learn from your colleagues, ask them questions about their approaches, get into a training session, or, yes, you can always contact me to learn more about the technicalities of emotional support.

So, keeping the above things in mind, let’s also discuss a general formula that you can use as a provider to help your patients emotionally.

Show Empathy While Listening

Empathy is an amazing partner in any health sector that helps you achieve success with your patients. And this becomes extremely true when your patient is going through emotional distress. You must be considerate of how your patient is feeling. Also, look closely at the types of words they use to describe such feelings. If you’re just starting, you’ll eventually find that individuals can react differently to similar events. Hence, your responsibility as a provider is to understand your patients’ perspectives.

Don’t Be Judgmental, And Avoid Interrupting

If you’ve been following my writing carefully till now, you may have noticed how much I appreciate people who listen to their patients attentively. In my sixteen years of experience, I have realized that most of the time, individuals are actually looking for people they can talk to. Sometimes it’s difficult for patients to express their feelings to their loved ones. That’s why they look for external support that can actually relate to what they are currently experiencing.

Hence, if your patient knows they are being heard, it will surely make them feel like they are getting the right support. However, avoid telling them how they should feel. You’re there to listen to their needs, not tell them how they should act and feel about this situation. Also, avoid any sort of argument with your patient. You must avoid telling them that even if their thinking doesn’t match yours. Furthermore, you don’t have to diminish the seriousness of your patient’s problems.


While listening to your patient’s needs and wants should be your top priority, don’t forget to reflect on those feelings. Reflection of feelings involves summarizing and mirroring the things your patient has said to you. This lets your patient know that you understand how they are feeling currently. Ensure you don’t repeat the same thing your patient said to you. Instead, you must paraphrase their words and express those feelings in your own words. Knowing they are being heard is the least they can ask for.  

Sometimes Honesty Is Best

As I said earlier, you’ll face situations where you may be unable to relate to your patient’s experiences and feelings. So, as a provider, even if you’re unsure about how you should react to these difficult feelings and bad news, there are still some potential ways to be supportive. You can be honest with your patient. Tell them you want to help by giving the right support, but you’re unsure what to say. Even if you can’t help them directly, you must still listen to what they are saying. Simple talk can sometimes solve a lot of problems.   

Give Compassion And Reassurance

What your patient wants to hear may not be what you feel about it, but what they want to hear from someone else. So, while you’re at it, reminding your patient that everyone makes mistakes based on the situation may be an appropriate response. Also, telling them they are loved is something people often want to hear when they go for emotional support. Furthermore, praising your patient for their ability to get through tough times can sometimes be an appropriate response.

Know Their Needs

Well, with experience, when you talk regularly to your patients, you’ll be able to understand their needs. However, asking your patient about what they seek through this session isn’t inappropriate. They may be looking for someone to talk to or need some advice or general support. On the other hand, you’ll also meet patients simply looking for a distraction, or they may even tell you to change the topic. There is nothing wrong with following your patient’s lead, as you’re there to help them.

What Isn’t Emotional Support?

OK, I have discussed emotional support and how you could approach your patient in general. However, offering emotional support isn’t something you can master by just reading about it. Your practical knowledge matters a ton if you want to help your patient effectively with their emotional needs. So, effectively learning how to offer emotional support can take a lot of time. Also, even if your intentions aren’t to harm someone’s feelings, your responses can sometimes be unhelpful or harsh.

So, while you provide emotional support, make sure not to do any of the following:  

Forcing What Your Patient Should Feel Like

Suppose you visit a healthcare provider about your emotional distress. You may be experiencing many mixed feelings that you’re unable to comprehend. Now, during your visit, if your doctor tells you that you are thinking of many unnecessary things and should have a positive mindset, will that be helpful to you? Maybe not, as your provider just invalidated your feelings. This is what I’m trying to tell you here.

Emotions are what make us human. They are part of every experience you’ll have in your life. You’ll deal with many patients during your career who may express many types of emotions at the same time. Even if listening to their emotions feels overwhelming, you should still not present them as something bad for your patients. You must never tell your patient to change their mindset or force them to think positively. Invalidating their feelings is the last thing you may want to do in an emotional support session.

Telling Them Their Problem Isn’t That Big

What one person may find stressful and difficult may not be the case for another. How someone comprehends stressful and tough situations varies from person to person. Your patient has visited you because they think their problems require expert attention and may as well be serious. So, telling them that their problem isn’t serious or that other people have it worse is a terrible way to handle a person who wants emotional support. You don’t want your patient to feel guilty about their problems. So, avoid this.

Using A Sentence Like “I Understand How You Feel”

Well, yes, you’ll get patients you can relate to. However, before you tell them you know how they feel, listen to what they say. There is no need for assumptions if you’re there to hear their feelings. You must gain true insight into your patient’s unique perspectives before claiming to understand their feelings. Suppose you rush into this without actually listening to their needs, feelings, and experiences. In that case, your patient may feel unheard and less understood.

Making Them Feel Guilty

When dealing with a patient in emotional distress, they may not be able to tend to other people’s feelings. Hence, you must avoid telling them how their emotions affect others. This will not help them but may actually make them feel guilty. Instead of focusing on someone else’s needs, try conversing with your patients and focusing on their needs. 

Rushing The Conversation

As a provider in a medical facility, you may not always have sufficient time to offer your patient emotional support. However, even if this is true, you must avoid rushing through the conversation. And do you remember what I said earlier? Never make your patient feel unheard or unimportant, which can happen if you rush through the conversation. So, you can be honest with your patient by telling them you have a tight schedule today and want to continue this conversation some other time if that’s OK with them.

Expressing Annoyance

People generally treat distress as a personality failing or discipline issue. However, this thinking is more common among regular folks and parents. As a professional, you can’t judge someone, express annoyance, or tell them to snap out of it. Such reactions will not help your patients. However, they may make their emotional distress worse.

What Approaches Can You Use To Assess Your Patient’s Emotional Needs?

So, now you know how to differentiate between what emotional support is and what is not. However, as discussed, how individuals manage their feelings can vary and is unique based on their relationships, personalities, identities, and life experiences. Furthermore, as a provider, you should assess how your patient manages emotionally with changes in their care and diagnosis. Also, how your patient makes decisions and communicates with you can be influenced by their feelings, such as sadness and fear.

It’s essential that you help your patient using effective approaches so the emotional distress doesn’t affect their physical health and quality of life. You can use the following approaches to assess your patient’s emotional needs effectively:

  • Spend an appropriate amount of time with your patient and let them have space so they can talk freely.
  • Even if they aren’t distressed, asking them how they cope and feel is OK. Don’t hesitate to ask them some questions about them. However, ensure you’re listening to them actively and give them a summary of what they have said to you at the end of the conversation.
  • You can ask your patient about their depressed state and how they rate it from zero to ten. If they say zero, they aren’t depressed. However, if they rate it ten, they’re going through the worst distress state.

How To Offer Emotional Support To A Patient’s Family And Friends?

Well, emotional support goes beyond just helping your patient. The patient’s family, friends, and loved ones also suffer from many emotions during this recovery process. So, they may need support to understand and cope with these feelings.

In my working years, I have dealt with families that have actually taken a great toll because of their loved ones suffering from emotional distress. And often, I have seen the friends and family of the patient become isolated because they spend most of their time with the patient. Such scenarios may increase the risk of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Here are some effective ways through which you can help your patient’s family and friends emotionally:

  • Start by knowing them and asking how they feel, giving them space and time to speak.
  • Try to encourage them so they can take care of themselves. Don’t be too direct about it; acknowledge what they’re doing for the patient. If they know what they’re doing is helping, it’ll be easier to understand how to care for themselves.
  • Some people may feel they don’t have time to care for themselves. However, you must let them know about the things they can do that may help them restore their energy. Suggest they talk to a friend, read books, spend time outside, and walk.

What Must You Do To Take Care Of Yourself?

Now, caring for your patients and their loved ones is the primary part of your job. However, this whole process can also take a toll on your health. Furthermore, this task can become more challenging if you’re offering care to a patient with a terminal illness. Also, you should not forget that even if you’re a professional, it’s more common than you think to build a relationship with your patient. At the same time, you care for them on a daily basis.

In such cases, you can experience various emotions, such as anger, sadness, guilt, and anxiety, while working with them. After their demise, these emotions can affect you drastically. They may also trigger memories of your patients who’ve died.

So, suppose you feel like these emotions are affecting your personal and professional lives. In that case, you must also not hesitate to get support for yourself.

Here are a few things you can consider:

  • Talk to your manager
  • Visit a psychologist or counselor
  • Talk to your other colleagues
  • Access clinical supervision

Providing emotional support for patients isn’t an easy job. But you can improve by working on your approaches and getting more experience in your field. So, if you want to learn more about your profession and get an expert opinion on how to become better at emotional support, consider getting help from Alnicor Consulting.

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