What to do when an adult is emotionally vulnerable

Alison Lees Relationships April 6, 2017

In the last blog post, we looked at some of the unhelpful things we might automatically do in response to an adult being emotionally vulnerable. Here at Attachment Foundation, we want to promote a healthy attachment response to distress. This post will look at practical things you can do when faced with the emotional distress (or big feelings) of another adult.

Let’s return to the example we used of your partner displaying emotional distress (or big feelings) while recounting something that had happened to them. What are some things you could do in this instance (and in any instance when faced with emotional vulnerability)? Dr Bruce Perry provides us with a very useful way of remembering how to react to someone in distress: The 3 R’s


It is helpful to understand a bit of basic neurobiology before we go on. When an adult is emotionally distressed, their “Emotional” or “Feeling” Brain takes over.  The “Thinking” Brain or cortical areas which help us to think rationally, make plans and find solutions, go “offline” when we experience distress. The Feeling Brain must be reassured that it is not under threat before the Thinking Brain will come back online. This is called being regulated. So, how can you help your partner to regulate back from their distressed state and experience a safe relational climate?



Be aware of your own feelings and remain regulated yourself– Big Feelings can be contagious

In a moment when your partner’s Feeling Brain has taken over control, you need your Thinking Brain to be in charge. Seeing a loved one, or anyone for that matter, hurt or upset can be distressing to witness. When faced with the emotional vulnerability of a loved one, a reaction is provoked in us which activates our Feeling Brain and leaves us ineffective to help anyone else if our Thinking Brain is then ‘hijacked’.  In other words, we are of very little assistance to our partner (or other) if we allow our own emotions to take over. We are not saying that we should ignore our own emotions but rather acknowledge that they are there and try to keep them under control.

Being aware of strategies that keep you emotionally regulated and able to use your Thinking Brain is key. Perhaps this involves you taking deep breaths, or maybe noticing the items in the room that start with the letter “a”. A blog post dedicated to learning strategies that keep your Thinking Brain in charge is coming up.

Work on being okay with sitting with negative emotions

Being aware of an emotion that you are experiencing and allowing yourself to comfortably feel it and think about it is called “sitting with an emotion”. For many, sitting with our own negative emotions can be difficult to tolerate never mind sitting with someone else and their negative emotions.  Remember that our partner must feel safe and reassured that they are not under threat before their Thinking Brain will come back online. When our partner is experiencing distress, we therefore need to offer them a SAFE and SECURE space in which they can express, explore and understand their own feelings. If we aren’t able to sit with negative emotions, we aren’t able to provide our partner with that opportunity.



(Help them to feel more connected whilst in distress)

Acknowledge that your partner is experiencing distress/big feelings.

This can be done both verbally and non-verbally. You might find that non-verbal acknowledgement of your partner’s emotions occurs quite naturally. Non-verbal acknowledgement is the use of your body, particularly your face, to reflect someone’s big feelings. “Mirroring” of emotion shows that you are aware of the emotion your partner is experiencing and displays to them that you are still connected. Mirroring can occur without much effort and is often done very naturally. This might be tilting your head to the side when you see someone upset, frowning if you witness anger or smiling when you see displays of happiness.  In addition to mirroring your partner’s emotions non-verbally, you can verbally reflect their emotions in a sensitive and loving tone. Stating the obvious is an incredibly simple tool to communicate a sense of connectedness to the person in distress and will help them to feel less overwhelmed by their big feelings. For example saying something like “I can see that you are really upset” or “It seems like you have been really hurt”. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings and not the events that they are talking about is very important in maintaining an emotional connection.

Listen to what the person is saying and reflect this back to them

How often do we hear what a person is saying but don’t actually listen? For instance, if your partner says, “I just give and give and give and what do I get in return?”, you could hear that your partner is asking you a question. However, if you listen to the message in the question, your partner could actually be saying “I feel unappreciated”. Once you have heard what your partner has to say, reflecting back what you hear to them can be a helpful way of letting them know that you are connected. You could say something like “It sounds like you’re saying that you feel unappreciated and undervalued”.

Use empathy

When trying to relate to your partner during their distress, it is very useful to use empathy. This means putting yourself in their shoes and imagining how they feel in the situation. Perhaps if you were in your partner’s situation you would feel as though the situation is not a big deal and therefore doesn’t require much time and attention in dealing with it. In this case, you might find yourself thinking that your partner is overreacting and would then downplay and devalue their distress, resulting in an instant disconnect between your partner’s experience and your reaction. The opportunity for emotional connection is therefore shut down. If you are able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes you are able to relate to their reality and therefore connect to them easily.

Hold back unhelpful responses

In the previous blog post, we listed a number of unhelpful responses. It is important to be aware of automatic responses that we may have in situations that don’t serve our partner in the best way. Before you respond, consider underlying messages you might be giving your partner. Also, consider what is driving you to respond in such a way. Are you serving your own agenda by saying or doing something? The way you respond to emotional distress should always be in a calm, sensitive, and loving manner.


Hopefully, by this stage, your partner is feeling regulated and related to (or connected to you), and their Thinking Brain is back online. This is now the time for discussing things that you might have previously been drawn to raise early on in your interaction with your partner. Looking for solutions, guiding them through problem-solving, and so on are now possible. Remember to let your partner initiate the problem-solving through requesting assistance. Sometimes, no problem solving is necessary and your partner is merely looking for someone to down-regulate them and connect to them. Making an offer to your partner such as “is there any way I can help in the situation?” gives them the choice to request assistance.

There will be many times when you won’t get this process right, but the important thing to remember is that you keep attempting it. Practice makes perfect and although we don’t believe in perfection, we believe in connection. If consistently attempting the 3 R’s gets you closer to a better connection with others, you are on the right track.  


1 Comment

alisonclairelees May 9, 2017 at 11:00 am

Thank you for your support. We hope you continue enjoying our posts.

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