How are you, really?

“How are you?” This common greeting can be uncomfortable for people who are feeling down. Many who say “fine” might actually prefer to say “I wish people would stop asking me that today” or “I’m really down, but I don’t want to talk to you about it.”

According to Emory University, over half of U.S. citizens report having a chronic illness, including heart disease, diabetes, mental health issues, cancer, substance dependence, asthma, etc. Not all illnesses lead to depression, but chronic conditions certainly can make the answer to the ‘how are you’ question hard. About seven percent of the population is depressed, according to the World Health Organization. Many more, like caregivers, are either exhausted, are having a hard day or don’t feel like connecting about how they feel.

Of the four seasons, spring is the season with the most suicides. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for the peak in spring, including end of school year stressors. Another reason might be that people who are down find spring and all the associated happy events depressing. The talk about graduations, weddings, trips, planting gardens and visiting family when you’re too sick yourself to plan can be a downer, especially when you’re around people who are excited.

People ask ‘how are you’ to create a connection. The asker wants to share more than a hello, especially when they are feeling good. This spring, consider finding a different way to connect, to help anyone who might be depressed.

Try these after hello instead: It’s good to see you; Isn’t it great it’s finally raining?; I’m sure glad it’s Friday; How was your weekend?; How’s your mother doing?; What’s the office like today? I really like your blouse/tie. Or choose any other sentence that highlights your connection or makes the person feel special.

If you’re the one being asked, consider these responses I’ve learned from my bereaved clients (another group who doesn’t like being asked ‘how are you?’): The same. Fair to partly cloudy. I’ve been better. I’m fine, now do you really want to know? Up and down. About what you might expect. That’s not my favorite question this month. I’ve had better days. Or simply change the subject without even answering ‘how are you?’.

People who feel down can decide if the asker is someone they want to share more deeply with. We all have friends who really want to know about us and have the time to listen, and we have acquaintances whom we don’t want to reveal our inner selves to. If you think the asker will go right into giving you advice, it might be better to just answer ‘how are you?’ with fine. Choose if you want to answer based on who’s asking and whether you want to connect. Take care of yourself instead of getting frustrated over the numerous ‘how are yous’ you’ll face today.

Eunice Lehmacher, a licensed independent social worker, is the bereavement coordinator at Prisma Health Hospice of the Foothills in Seneca. For additional information about the program, visit ghs.org/hospice.

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