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Jemjem Yap (middle) with her vent buddies Loren Hipolito (left) and Marge Andrada. Having trusted friends to share your burdens with can help both your mental and physical health.

How friends can help reduce stress, anxiety and grief – why you need a ‘vent buddy’

  • Vent buddies are trusted friends we can talk to about our anxieties, frustrations and fears, helping us cope and deal with our burdens
  • Bottling up feelings may trigger anger and anxiety, and weaken the immune system

When Jemjem Yap lost her father in July 2020, she was beside herself. Her sense of devastation was compounded by the fact that she was in Singapore and her dad was in Iloilo, a province in the Philippines. Travel restrictions and border closures meant that Yap, who was born in the Philippines and moved to Singapore almost three years ago for work, could not travel to see her father as he lay in a bed in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU) after having a stroke.

To exacerbate matters, Yap, who is herself an ICU nurse, had to deal with the pressures of being on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I felt helpless,” the 33-year-old says. “My dad was my hero and the only family I had, and now, not only was he [far away], but he was deteriorating and I couldn’t get to him to hug or kiss him goodbye. And with the pandemic escalating all over the world, I was worried about the toll the virus was taking on everyone, and fearful that I would come into contact with a Covid-positive patient … my world felt like it had come crashing down.”

During that period of dealing with complicated grief, anxiety and stress, Yap turned to her two best friends from university: Marge Andrada, who lives in the Philippines, and Loren Hipolito, who lives in the United States. The trio’s days and nights were filled with phone calls and video chats as Yap poured her heart and soul out to her friends.

“I don’t usually unload my emotional burdens on others, but sharing how I felt was really cathartic,” Yap explains. “I felt like I’d lost my sense of purpose. I also had other things going on in my life that were weighing heavily on me … Marge and Loren listened to me without judgment and offered solutions to what I was dealing with. They also checked up on me often to make sure that I was looking after myself, because physically I was quite rundown.”

She left her grief and guilt behind by climbing volcanoes

“Vent buddies” – we all need them. No matter how strong or independent we are, it’s key to have at least one person to talk to about our anxieties, frustrations and fears. Covid-19 may have affected most people’s emotional well-being in a negative way – as evidenced by sharp rises in calls to mental health helplines – but, long after the pandemic is declared over and we get back to some semblance of normality, we will still need people in our lives who are willing to share our burdens.

“Offloading to people doesn’t just signal a desire for support or assistance,” says Dr Shawn Ee, a clinical psychologist and director of The Psychology Practice in Singapore. “It has psychological benefits as well, in that it allows us to share our concerns and frustrations safely, without the threat of rejection or dismissal.”

It is also beneficial to our physical well-being. The mind-body connection is intrinsically linked; bottling up our emotions or avoiding talking about what’s stressing us can directly affect our physical health. Over time, suppressing negative emotions can lead to anger or anxiety, which may weaken our immune system or cause stress hormones to spike. It may also lead to depression, which is associated with a higher risk of chronic illness such as heart disease.
Dr Shawn Ee says you should ask friends beforehand if it’s OK to share and for them to listen.

One study, published in 2009 in the journal Emotion Review, also found that releasing stress by sharing it with others is a common coping mechanism and that it can ultimately reduce that stress.

There are a few things to be mindful of when baring your soul to someone. Ee says that it’s possible to “burden” your friend with your problems, causing them to feel anxious, worried or stressed, too.

“That’s why you should ask them beforehand if it’s OK for you to share and for them to listen. Otherwise, they may not give you the time and attention you need and you may end up feeling like nobody cares.”

Tips for helping loved ones suffering from depression

Ee adds that you should be selective about who you seek support from, as not everyone may be empathetic to your problems – and some friends may not be as reliable or trustworthy as you might expect them to be.

Before opening up, ask how doing so will help you. Are you looking for solutions or advice, or do you just want someone to empathise with you? Emotional “dumping” or negative venting isn’t always healthy – Ee says that talking about the same issues over and over again may also be a sign that you do not want to deal with what’s at the heart of those problems. In this case, your friend may not be able to help you, or may get tired of listening to you and start to tune out, leaving you even more frustrated.

Yap says her friends made her feel loved and cared for at a difficult time.

Without Marge and Loren, Yap says that she doesn’t know how she would have coped during that painful period.

“I needed solutions and advice and they delivered. The three of us are close and they share their frustrations with me, too. Trust is so important because if you share your biggest worries and fears with the wrong people it can backfire,” she says.

“They made me feel loved and cared for. After talking to them I felt lighter and like I wasn’t alone.”