A few months ago, someone from Toronto Star contacted me to share my thoughts on an event that happened in the community. Normally, this is no issue for me, however, in this instance the thought of having my words in a public forum made my stomach do backflips. In addition, the thought of my voice cracking up during the interview made me feel nauseous. As a result of my fears, I thanked them for the opportunity, politely declined and then spent the next few days bouncing between regret and relief.
Think of that chronic worrier in your life. What characteristics do they have? They might be soft-spoken, shy, conscientious, and constantly hard on themselves. If your mind went to the characteristics traditionally associated with femininity, that might not be a coincidence. Anxiety seems to have a gender association in our collective consciousness.
Are women more anxious than men?
The research says yes. Women report higher rates of many anxiety issues (general anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorders) compared to men. There are a host of reasons why that could be. On the other hand, maybe the difference doesn’t lie in the numbers, but rather in the WAY men express their anxiety.
Anxiety in men tends to manifest in what we call externalizing behaviours.
Externalizing behavior can look like:
increased alcohol use
These behaviours may have an underlying source of anxiety. Does he have a headache, physical pains, or is struggling to sleep? Should you take these symptoms at face value? Or could it be that he is feeling anxious? It is certainly possible that anxiety rates in men are underreported and therefore, underestimated.
I often tell clients, ''if you try to ignore any mental health concerns, it will show up in another way''. Many behaviours have masking functions. For example, alcohol may provide short-term relief, but in the long run, it enables men to avoid facing the underlying anxiety, thereby exacerbating the problem.
So, why do men suppress their emotions?
Boys are primed from a very young age to suppress emotional expression. Men are encouraged to mask fear and nervousness with bravado. As a result, men being angry is more socially acceptable than being anxious, or afraid. This is an important distinction because anger and anxiety are different.
To help you understand better, let me break it down.
Most emotions can be categorized into
- Primary emotions
- Secondary emotions
Research shows there are seven universal emotional responses. Regardless of your race, religion, culture and/or sexual orientation, we are all hardwired to express the following emotions in the same way:
7 UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS
The simplest way to think of this is, primary emotions are your universal emotional responses. Secondary emotions are how you feel about your primary emotions.
Imagine you are driving on the highway. It’s 5:45 PM and there is bumper to bumper traffic. Suddenly, you get cut off. Your chest constricts, your palms sweat, and you curse the other driver as you slam the brakes, hard. You are so PISSED and contemplate driving ahead and cutting that very car off, in what may seem like poetic justice.
At that moment, the primary emotion (fear) is overtaken by the secondary emotion (anger). Secondary emotions are colored by our personal judgments over the experience of the primary emotion.
In a world that rewards men for stoicism, feelings of anxiety and sadness may evoke shame. As a result, this makes it quite challenging to be truly vulnerable. This could be why men tend to externalize their anxiety, since it is easier to express anger, irritability, or engage in problematic behaviors such as excessive drinking and drug use, rather than acknowledging the anxiety.
Remember, mental health concerns do not look the same on everyone.
6 ways to help a man with anxiety
1. Getting help with managing anxiety doesn't always mean seeing a therapist. Participate in activities together. Join a dance class, cook meals together or check out an art exhibit.
2. Explore the issue gently. “I’ve noticed you have been acting differently and I’m wondering if everything is okay”.
3. Highlight concerning behaviours, vs labelling it as anxiety. "I notice you are drinking more than usual, what's going on?".
4. Show compassion. “It must be so difficult to feel that you will be ridiculed if you tell someone you are feeling sad or afraid”.
5. Validate the mental health struggles. “I admire you for being open with me. It’s not an easy thing to do”.
6. Learn together. Look at the information on health websites together with the goal of educating each other.
6 WAYS TO HELP A MAN WITH ANXIETY
Helping someone with their anxiety can feel like you are going in circles. Remember, progress is not linear and setbacks happen. People have different ways of expressing and coping with their emotions.
Before helping someone, remember to taking care of yourself first. This will help you have more perspective on how you can truly be of help.
After all, one cannot pour from an empty cup.
Until next time,