how to support someone who is overwhelmed

How to Support Someone Who is Overwhelmed 

There is a tool that has proven to be even more effective than “is there something you need right now” that I call The Menu of Options. 

By the way, if you haven’t yet read “The problem with what do you need right now?” then check out that article HERE

What is The Menu of Options? 

Why is this tool so powerful? In short, you can think of people in distress as often going back to their inner child.  Unaware of their own power and their choices, they need a powerful caring figure to help them find the ground of their adult self once again.  

When we use the Menu of Options by giving people a choice; just one option can be enough.

For example…

”Would it be helpful if I/you/we did x, y, or z?”

“Would it be supportive if you shared a little bit more of your experience?”

“Would you prefer me to sit in front of you, or next to you?”

“Do you want physical touch right now? Or would you prefer some space?”

“Would it be okay to talk about this for five more minutes? And then could I invite you to go and get some support from one of our assistant leaders if you need more support?”

My experience is that using the Menu of Options leads to others being able to receive way more support.

Let me give you an example: 


The Menu of options can work for people who are overwhelmed, confused and yes, angry. 


Leader: “Would you like to share more about how you are feeling, leave the class or request a specific change?”

As leaders we meet moments that baffle us or leave us clueless.  

In those moments it can be alluring to ask our struggling participant for a cheat code to make the moment easier.  “What do we do now?”

Here are some easy go-to options: 

“Would it be helpful if I guided you and the rest of the class in a simple grounding exercise for the next two minutes before we continue the class?”

“Would it work for you right now to go and have someone here join you for a five-minute support pod?”

“Do you want to know what I’m feeling right now or would it feel better to simply share and be heard?”

“How would it feel if I adjusted the exercise so that you don’t have to share if it doesn’t feel safe for you?”

“Would you prefer to spend 5 more minutes talking about this here all together or to chat about it for 15 minutes after class?”

You don’t need to get it “right” 

There’s one last thing to remember… you don’t need to get it right. 

I’ve had participants respond with: 

“Those don’t work for me but _______would.”

When they have options, they have something to push up against. This means that you don’t need to get it right, you just need to get some options on the table. That allows them to either figure out what they really want.

They also get something very important, a sense of what kinds of things are available. 

For those who feel that their needs or desires are a burden, which is a lot of people, making specific requests can feel like making an imposition on others.

Through life, especially in group contexts and in close relationships our friends, family members and students will encounter moments and experiences that are simply too much.  More than they know how to handle or deal with. 

The Menu of Options when used well, is trauma-informed, versatile, supportive, and a loving act of emotional labor.  

Play with it, practice it, get to know it.  It can be a wonderful companion on your journey as a leader and care-er of others. It helps us show up in ways that people need when few others will.

4 thoughts on “How to Support Someone Who is Overwhelmed ”

  1. These are great examples that I’m guessing work well for many people. I feel like I may be living in the outer limits where even these words may create overwhelm. In these last 15 months since I quite abruptly found myself in the role of “single mom” for two nonagenarians (one with a traumatic brain injury), my challenge has been to simplify and use very basic sentence structures. The language overwhelm comes on quickly. I sometimes offer one option, which is usually not accepted, but then that sometimes leads to a whole different door opening, which in itself can feel miraculous to me.

    I was also playing with this a little before the accident since I’d kept in touch with a few people who felt interested in AR and/or circling but dropped out because they felt like there was too much language, not enough body. I wish I could say that I have some great examples of what I mean, but I don’t. Not yet. I feel like I’m mostly on the cusp of awareness with this. Just writing this feels like it’s sharpening my focus. Thank you.

  2. I agree with K. I have experience offering options and not having them be able to process even that limited list. Sometimes it is good to offer one thing at a time so you can get yes or no answers. Other times it might work better to offer a few options for them to choose from as you said, they may not know what options are available or possible for them. Taking a moment to breathe and return to the body can also help focus all of us so we can even have the space to discuss the options. Good article.

  3. This is kinda of unfinished and not helpful for somebody not experiencing the anxiety who wants to help their loved one struggling. Where are more questions? I guess I’d expect more pooling of what better kind of questions are helpful in getting somebody unstuck who feels stuck.

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