“Why does being asked ‘are you OK?’ make you suddenly… not OK?”

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

Ever burst out in tears after a friend asked you whether you were OK? Here’s why those three words are such a powerful emotional tool.

Despite the influx of content about emotional wellbeing on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok over the last few years, emotions are still one of those things very few of us know how to identify and handle. Instead, we’re experts at pushing down or ignoring those emotions that feel uncomfortable or painful.

On the surface, this might seem like a good idea. Who wants to feel rubbish when you can choose to live in blissful delusion? 

But when bottling up your emotions becomes a habit, it can quickly become hard to tell what you’re actually feeling – so much so that your emotions start to pop up out of nowhere.  

If you’ve ever burst out in tears after a (well-meaning) friend asked you whether you were OK, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

We’ve all had those moments where we’re fine one minute and a mess the next, and while it always feels nice to let everything out, it can also be a bit of a shock to the system.  

So, why do questions like ‘are you OK?’ have the power to break down those emotional boundaries? Are we always more close to tears than we think, or is it just that our friends have the power to recognise when the question needs to be asked? And can having emotional outbursts like this be a good thing?

When we push our emotions down, they tend to grow in strength.

“When we’re feeling vulnerable and someone asks if we’re OK, it can often open the floodgates,” explains Dr Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist, scientist and author. “This is because emotions are so near the surface, and by being asked if we’re alright we feel that someone finally ‘sees’ us.

“For someone to actually see behind the mask of ‘I’m fine-ness’ – to not be invisible anymore – can feel like such a relief that tears quickly follow. 

“The sudden and acute realisation that we’re not alone, and another human being may care enough to spot the signs that we are struggling, can be experienced as such a significant event that it’s impossible to keep our emotions bottled up any longer.” 

Because our emotions play such a powerful role in shaping our thoughts and behaviours – and tend to become even stronger when we push them down – Dr Arroll adds that this question can offer an opportunity for our subconscious to relieve the pressure.

“Feelings require our attention, and if they do not receive such attention, they will find a way of escaping and grabbing it all of their own. I like to think of them as independent internal creatures that coexist inside of all of us. They all have their own unique personalities, and all deserve care and consideration, without judgement – even the haughty ones.”

In this way, you shouldn’t feel ashamed, embarrassed or frustrated with yourself if being asked whether you’re OK opens the floodgates – it’s entirely normal. Sometimes you just need a big cry – it’s a fantastic form of cathartic release – and chances are that you’ll feel a hell of a lot better once you’re done. 

However, if you want to gain a greater understanding of your emotions in the future – and be aware of when you’re feeling overwhelmed – you can start by sitting with your feelings.

“Journaling is a great way to do this, although there are now apps that ping at various times of the day and ask you how you are,” Dr Arroll suggests. “The trick here is consistency – it’s not enough to do this once or twice, tuning into our feelings should be as regular a practice as breathing our teeth – only then can we truly manage our feelings so that they don’t sneak out and stop us in our tracks.” 

At the end of the day, it’s good to know that having these emotional outbursts is kind of normal – and while there are things you can do to understand your emotions better, it’s OK if they decide to claim their time in the spotlight every once in a while. Having a good cry is a wonderful thing, and if you can do it surrounded by friends, that’s even better.

Images: Getty

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