What is anxiety? Anxiety is defined as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension and worried thoughts that are persistent with or without an actual threat of something happening. It’s activated by the amygdala, a little almond shaped set of neurons deep within the brain. The amygdala’s job is to scan the environment for threats and deploy the fight or flight protocol to help a person survive. In the caveman days, man would go hunt for food looking for ways to sustain his family. When he came across the saber tooth tiger, instinct (or the amygdala) would kick in so he could make quick decisions to survive.
So anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though saber tooth tigers are extinct, we still need that amygdala for say when we are crossing a busy street and a car is coming right at us. Time to get out of the way!
When does anxiety become a problem? Well, when there isn’t a saber tooth tiger, or a car careening in our direction, but our mind has created some threat that is not actually likely to happen, we can become anxious. Think of it like this. You are taking a test tomorrow and have plenty of time to study tonight. But you don’t feel confident that you know the material and you just know, YOU KNOW you are going to fail. That persistent thought “I am going to fail” is the threat. It’s not likely that you will fail if you study. You may get a lower grade than you’d like, but it’s not likely you will fail. This is anxiety my friend.
For more examples of anxiety check out this 2 minute fun video:
Men & women manifest anxiety symptoms in different ways. Today, I will focus on men. So guys (and girls if you have a guy) read on to see if these symptoms apply to you or someone you know!
First of all, there are negative societal implications for men who express fear (anxiety). Men have been taught that they need to be tough, don’t cry, whatever. While for women, it is much more acceptable to have and express emotions. Therefore, women can call their friends or reach out for support when they are experiencing anxiety or other crisis. Men on the other hand, are not so proactive in reaching out for help.
While there is likely not a great divide between how men and women experience anxiety, there are some differences in how they cope with it or how it shows up. Here are a few signs of a potential anxiety coverup.
1. Anger or irritability: Since men have been stigmatized for expressing “weak” emotions, they often turn to anger when they feel anxiety. Anger is totally a socially acceptable response from men. And remembering that anxiety triggers a fight or flight response, it’s understandable that men respond to anxiety aggressively. Hostile behaviors could also include accusatory or harsh words. Irritability may come out of nowhere from seemingly minor annoyances, like someone talking too loudly, or even the kids getting a bit rambunctious. Anger is a secondary emotion, that masks intense emotions of stress, fear, grief, guilt, etc.
2. Substance abuse: Men who feel that they aren’t allowed to talk about their feelings, sometimes turn to alcohol, prescription drugs or street drugs. Substances take the edge off of anxiety for short periods of time and often have a negative impact either on the person or close friends/family. So while this hiatus from anxiety seems great, the fall back is that it creates more problems in other areas of life which creates more anxiety. The cycle of anxiety hasn’t been discussed in this blog post, but trust me, it’s a cycle.
3. Depression: Depression is often a best friend of anxiety. They go together like peas and carrots. For men especially, anxiety is coped with by avoiding. (See the two examples above.) They avoid situations that may involve judgement or rejection. I knew a man who used to love to golf, but never felt very good at it. His anxiety made him believe that his buddy’s trash talk was criticism so he stopped going golfing and turned down continued invitations to hang out. Avoidance removes a person from daily activities or social interactions. When I say social interactions, this also means family interactions and the lack of desire to engage in previously enjoyed engagements with the kids or significant other. By using avoidance as a coping technique, the color of life becomes dull and unexciting making many men feel hopeless and helpless - the two pillars of depression.
4. Sexual Compulsions: Men may be more likely than women to use sexual gratification as a way to temporarily relieve anxiety. Whether alone or with a partner, when it’s used as a primary way to cope with anxiousness it can make a perfectly healthy part of being a human into an escape that is ultimately not fulfilling for the man or their partner. Additionally, some men fear treating their anxiety because they are afraid of experiencing (often temporary) sexual side effects that are known to occur with some medications.
In order to promote men’s mental health and well-being, it’s so important to encourage men to reach out for support. Therapy can be a place for men to safely either discuss their feelings, or learn how to label them. And if diving right in to feelings is too difficult, then let your therapist help by educating about anxiety and ways to improve the quality of life. Treatment is really driven by the client. We as therapists are here to help you find YOUR way.