The ‘I’m fine’ pandemic

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From the outside, business administration junior Xenia Chiarabini looks like she has everything under control. She holds the diversity chair position in her sorority, is on the executive board for a club, works 15 hours a week as a University Union faculty supervisor and does all this with a self-assured and welcoming presence. But despite her confident and composed demeanor, her real world is often filled with stress and anxiety. “Inside I know that everything is falling apart and I don’t know how to deal with it,” Chiarabini said. “It makes me more anxious every minute to keep it bottled in, until I kind of explode and have a little breakdown.” If the recent Girls Who Handle It event is anything to go by, her story is not atypical of the lives of many college-aged women.

“I feel like my struggles don’t compare to other people’s struggles. Even though I feel like I’m falling apart, I always think, ‘Oh, someone else probably has it worse. I might have two midterms, but someone else might have three or four, so why do my problems matter? Why should I complain out loud about them?’” Chiarabini said. By avoiding and invalidating our own feelings, we ultimately debilitate our mental health, sometimes lying to even our closest friends.

(Source: WIB Wire Student Survey. All, N= 126; Females, N= 125; Males, N= 41)

The classic conversation starts with: “How are you doing?” With dozens of things on your mind, the most common response is “I’m fine, how are you?” This response is easy, but it lacks honesty. “If people go around all the time saying ‘I’m fine’, how is that possible? Life isn’t always running smoothly,” Cal Poly psychology lecturer Dr. Cynthia Breaux said. “The concept of being strong, being emotionless, is unfathomable to me. How can you simultaneously be strong and avoid?” Breaux highlights the critical flaw in the mask-like avoidance coping mechanisms that the “I’m fine” mantra invites. Life was never promised to be easy, so when things aren’t going well, why do we put on a facade and refuse to admit it? We all feel and express emotion differently; however, what is dangerous for one’s mental and physical health is when that emotion lacks an outlet.

(Source: WIB Wire Student Survey. All, N= 126; Females, N= 125; Males, N= 41)

There are many reasons as to why individuals may find it difficult to express their emotions. However, Dr. Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, a psychologist and director of Counseling Services at Cal Poly, explains that the question most individuals ask themselves is “What will I admit to someone else?” This is where the idea of stigma comes into play. Stigma is a mark of shame “associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” It can be demonstrated through self-deprecating thoughts that question our emotional strength.

If someone appears unemotional handling something, it makes us feel more secure. Responding in an emotional way is equated to unstable behavior […] In our society, that is attributed to females, making women viewed as weaker and more dependent. – Dr. Cynthia Breaux

“I definitely want to be able to tell my friends everything that is going on with me, even the hardest things, without feeling like they’re going to feel sorry for me or that I’m going to feel embarrassed,” Chiarabini said. “A lot of the times that’s what holds me back. Being able to trust them and put myself out there– I would love to do that. It’s just really hard for me right now because I have a lot of pride and I don’t want to be seen as weak by anyone, not even my closest friends.” This type of logic leads individuals to become afraid of expressing their emotions.

“Lose the fear of emotions. You have to at least be open to the idea that they’re not that scary,” Breaux said. “If you calm your body down and allow whatever you are feeling to be there, like anxiety, then you’re not afraid of it anymore. The minute you tolerate something, it doesn’t control you anymore.” Though easier said than done, being able to sit down and truly listen to your body is the critical first step to allowing yourself some grace. When you neglect to express your emotions and deny their manifestation, your body begins to biologically, and seemingly unconsciously, react.

Humans are visual creatures, meaning we make decisions and assumptions based off of what we see. “If someone appears unemotional handling something, it makes us feel more secure. Responding in an emotional way is equated to unstable behavior, not handling [the situation],” Breaux said. “In our society, that is attributed to females, making women viewed as weaker and more dependent.” This social construct is normalized through media, further exacerbating the idea that women’s emotional expression is synonymous with weakness. Ultimately, the effects of this socialization have now made it so women feel as if they must be inexpressive in order to prove their strength.

“Women tend to react in ways to not affect other people, which goes back to the idea of ‘I don’t want to be a bother to anyone,’” Reynaga-Abiko said. Women have been historically told to put on a smile, not complain and stay quite. The effects of this, paired with the stereotype of women being overly emotional, leads to the inability to accurately express oneself. In a Wire survey of 126 Cal Poly students and alumni, 87 percent were moderately to very unlikely to show emotion in a professional or classroom setting. However, the survey found that it was more acceptable for women to show emotion in public than men.

(Source: WIB Wire Student Survey. All, N= 126; Females, N= 125; Males, N= 41)

Biologically, females and males are wired differently. Dr. Hannah Roberts, a clinical psychologist in private practice in San Luis Obispo, speaks to the ways in which hormones are particularly important to this discussion. “Women have so much more hormonal variation, with fluctuations every 28 days. Men also experience hormonal variation, but estrogen in particular is impacted by stress a lot,” Roberts said. “The difference I see is that women have been socialized to hide emotion and when that interplays with our unique hormones, it triggers further problems. I see a lot of diverse individuals but there is a common theme within women. Almost every single day, people literally tell me, ‘Well mine isn’t as bad as other people, so it shouldn’t matter.’ We do this qualifying of trauma and play mental gymnastics to make it okay.” Cortisol, the stress hormone, has been found to affect women and men in different ways.

Knowing this information is critical to understanding the stigma that surrounds emotion, especially when men and women exhibit the same emotions in vastly different manners. Due to different socializations, women are more likely to internalize their emotions while men are more likely to externalize their emotions through anger according to Reynaga-Abiko.

(Source: WIB Wire Student Survey. All, N= 126; Females, N= 125; Males, N= 41)

The body physically reacts to stress in various ways depending on the person, but biologically occurs through the same neural pathways. “[Stress can be seen through] elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels. [Clients] talk themselves into thinking they’re fine but the body manifests in trouble breathing, possible panic attacks and trouble sleeping,” Roberts said. “The longer you tell yourself you’re fine, the longer your body has to deal with these elevated levels of stress creating a discrepancy between a cognitive and physical response. Instead of addressing things, your body reacts and is telling you ‘it’s not fine.’” The physical responses of stressors on the body are constantly being researched and are interesting to review through psychoneuroimmunology, the study of how mental health affects the body’s immune system. Since we know that stress is exhibited both psychologically and physiologically, there are ongoing studies working to link the effects of the brain with immune system functionality. When the body’s reactions are left untreated, or neglected, these chronic issues may become debilitating. Roberts says that her patients who go see chiropractors for chronic back pain are being told to go see a psychologist as well.

“I see across the board people coming in saying that they have been pushing through, but now they have chronic illnesses,” Roberts said. “They go and see their chiropractor and they are being told that they need to process things. Then they come back and say, ‘I feel better now that I’ve talked about it.’” However, as with many things, it is much easier to read about treatments than to actually partake in them. It takes strength and bravery to be able to express feelings in a healthy manner.

A common misconception is that staying emotionless and putting forth an image of strength is synonymous with resilience. “Resilience is being unafraid to sit down with your emotions and listen to what they’re telling you,” Breaux said. “Resilience lies in understanding yourself and [your] relationship with someone else. Those two things will get you resiliency, not holding it in and avoiding.” The “I am fine” mantra does not equate to resilience, rather to weakness through avoidance coping.

It can be extremely difficult knowing how to work around the “I’m fine” pandemic. One important action to take is to recognize the power of language. “Banish ‘At least you’re not’ and ‘Have you tried?’ from your vocabulary,” Breaux said. “It’s enough sometimes to say ‘That sucks and I feel really bad.’” In addition, Roberts advises individuals to engage a different part of their brain–the rational prefrontal cortex, which allows us to problem solve, by journaling or writing lists. She also recommends physical activity to release stress hormones through running, yoga or swimming.

When we forget the importance of showing emotion, or are too overwhelmed with the idea of emoting, we are left feeling inhuman. “I think the less and less you show [emotions], the more and more you become a shell of a person. It takes your humanity away and you become more like a robot that internalizes everything, going motion after motion deteriorating your mental health,” Chiarabini said. Though she still finds difficulty in confiding in others because of her own fears, Chiarabini understands that there is power in relationship. There is hope in communication and judgement-free sharing, and that all begins with listening to yourself. When we allow ourselves to feel without judging ourselves, we provide a safe place for growth and compassion. Give yourself some grace and understand that being unwell does not equate being weak— you are incredibly brave for facing your struggles.

So— how are you doing, really?*


* If you need someone to talk to or more resources, please refer to:

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