Let me ask you a question: if a friend of yours or I were to stand in front of you today and ask, “Are you OK?” how would you respond? Could you, or would you, share how you really are? As a society, we seem to be becoming more and more aware of the mental health crisis we are in. On 8 September, Australia and New Zealand have a National Day of Action where they are encouraged to ask someone, “R U OK?”

Though it’s somewhat disappointing that we need an allocated day of the year to remind us to check in on our loved ones’ mental health, it is a step in the right direction. We are, at least, becoming more and more attuned and attentive to one another.

We might not ask “R U OK?” every day in the way 8 September encourages. But a simple way to rephrase this question is, “How are you?”—and that we hear many times a day.

“How are you?” is a phrase we reflexively say after or even instead of “Hello”. When said, we often don’t think about the deep conversation the question invites, nor do we ask it expecting a litany of one’s woes.

Have you ever been on a walk and had someone say with a little nod of the head, “How ya goin’?” and then pass on by before you had the time to respond? Have you ever had the audacity to respond honestly to a cashier’s polite, “Hi, how are you today?” and when you answered, they fumbled for words, avoided eye contact and hurried your items into their bags?

Though the intention behind this question is good, the response usually does not depict how we really are. There are a few reasons for this. One is that we simply don’t know how to answer it. Many of us struggle to identify or explain what we’re feeling, either because we don’t take the time to check in with ourselves, or because we find our emotions too overwhelming. We distract ourselves to the point that we avoid dealing with anything difficult (even when our lives would greatly benefit from facing reality).

Some of us have been told that emotions are bad or perceive them as a weakness. So, we have gotten into the habit of responding, “Yeah, good. Been busy! Fine thanks, and you?”—an answer that often isn’t accurate and that doesn’t give much insight, certainly not enough for people to be able to take action and support us during a difficult time.

Stoic philosophers used to argue that emotions did nothing but interfere with sound judgement and rational thought. “Feelings are fickle,” they would say. What they failed to take into consideration is that emotions are a form of useful information. They tell us what’s going on inside us in response to what is happening in our lives. They help us understand why we might be feeling a certain way.

We might think we’re being strong, wise, responsible individuals when we ignore the mix of uncomfortable things stirring inside us—but the opposite is true. There is a high cost to avoiding our emotions.

Studies show that when we do this, our stress increases, we are prone to agitation, we become disconnected from each other and our physical health suffers. Marc Brackett, psychologist and director of the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, says our emotions are linked to physiological parts in our brains that release hormones and chemicals that affect our overall physical health.

It’s all connected. The irony of avoiding or suppressing our emotions is that they become stronger. Brackett says, “The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.”

The good news is that growing in our awareness of our emotions and our ability to express them is a skill we can constantly grow in so that they don’t rule us. Here are some ways forward:

Stop and get curious

Take the time to stop and check in with yourself, as often as once a day. We experience many emotions throughout a single day, often going from one to the next without much consideration. Get into the routine of digging deeper with one of the many things that deserve your attention—the good, the bad, the in-between.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What is the issue?
  • What is coming up here?
  • Did something happen to cause me to feel this way?
  • How is my body feeling? Am I experiencing any tension, shaking or an increased heart rate? Am I finding it hard to concentrate?

Research professor, lecturer and author of Atlas of the Heart Brené Brown explains that language gives us the power of understanding and meaning. She says, “Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning and self-awareness. When we don’t have the language to talk about what we’re experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others is severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively.”

If you’re finding it hard to describe what you’re feeling, look up a list of emotions online (an emotion wheel is a useful tool for children and adults alike). It can help to point you to the ones that resonate when you’re struggling to identify them on your own. Try to come up with three words that describe how you’re feeling and take a moment to expand on them. Labelling your emotions with words will increase your self-awareness and help you to communicate them more effectively to others.

Write it out

The act of writing is filled with therapeutic benefits. Psychologist and author James Pennebaker has done more than 40 years of research into the links between writing and emotional processing. His research found that people who write about their emotions improved their physical and mental well-being, got more insight with time, and saw improvements in their relationships.[1] You don’t have to write pages of beautifully written prose and there are many ways to go about it:

  • Put a timer on for five minutes and write about the thoughts you’re having. For example, maybe you’re thinking, I can’t believe they said that! or What did I do to deserve this? or Nobody is doing anything! Write how this is causing you to behave. Are you isolating yourself from people, getting aggressive, and checking out by scrolling on your phone?
  • Label your emotions on a scale from 1–10. How deeply are you feeling them?
  • Expand on the words you chose from a list of feelings and how they relate to the internal and external things happening in your life.
  • Write a description of the sensations you are feeling in your body and see if you can connect them to your emotions.
  • If you have something you want to say to someone, write a letter without the intention of sending it. 

Talk it out

Have you ever felt better after a conversation with a close friend about something you are struggling with? The circumstance itself hasn’t changed, your friend might have done nothing but listen, but it can feel like a giant weight has been lifted.

Having regular meaningful conversations about our emotions with a good friend, family member or mentor is hugely beneficial. It provides perspective, can help us see things differently, reduces our stress, and makes us feel heard and seen. Many people find comfort in expressing their feelings to God. In the Bible we see people doing this through writing, singing and speaking. Even talking to yourself can be helpful. If you’re overwhelmed by what emotions are coming up for you and need extra guidance, reach out to a professional counsellor or psychologist.

You might also be interested in reading:

mental health

Our emotions reveal what our hearts love, trust and fear. Stifling them is hazardous to all areas of our growth: spiritual, mental, physical and relational. When we learn to identify and express them, we can use even the most difficult ones to create positive and satisfying lives. In doing so, “[we] find a universe of new choices and second chances—a universe where we can share the stories of our bravest and most heartbreaking moments with each other in a way that builds connection,” writes Brené Brown.

In light of “R U OK Day”, I invite you to ask yourself first, with the same amount of curiosity and compassion you might ask someone you care about: How are you, really?

Zanita Fletcher is a life coach, writer and assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine. She writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.

[1]„Pennebaker, J. (2016). Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. New York, The Guilford Press”.

„Pennebaker, J. (2016). Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. New York, The Guilford Press”.