Breathe into the Bag: Gender and the Anxiety Gap

Breathe into the Bag Gender and the Anxiety Gap

Why are men so silent about our anxiety?
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“Gripped. Heart rushing, mind racing. Breathing. Breathing. Breathing. Mind is like a crashing elephant and nothing makes sense. I’m having a panic attack.”

I had my first panic attack while driving my son to get a haircut. In that season of my life, the anxiety was raw and primal. I felt afraid for my life and anything outside of my home felt like a threat. That was a year of depression and anxiety that ate away at my confidence, my sense of trust in myself, and kept me mostly confined to my house (for more, see the article “My Journey Through Depression“).

My doctor tells me that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s a common diagnosis (affecting 1 out of every 25 of us) for people who experience excessive worry that is chronic and debilitating. Anxiety can flare up just thinking about events, situations or expectations that are placed on you. The worry is beyond what the situation calls for and it is sticky: you cannot shake it. It can make you feel physically sick, and you begin to avoid situations that spike your anxiety.

Anxiety is like a roommate that moves in and then takes over your life.

Anxiety is like a roommate that moves in and then takes over your life.

Slowly over the past year, I have come out from under the weight of anxiety that was so defeating. I have begun to rebuild my confidence in myself and the world within, and around me.

He said, she sad?

Recently I watched (and experienced) my son cycle up and down his own anxiety ladder. It made me wonder whether anxiety is different for my son and my daughter. Turns out there may be something to it. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but that doesn’t mean they feel more anxious than men. Men just find different ways to express our anxiety.

Women are socialized to emote, care-give and to ruminate. Men are socialized to solve problems, express their emotions more explosively and do things. Turns out, men feel the same anxiety, we just express it differently. Men also express their anxiety as anger, which is apparently a more acceptable emotion.

Anxiety is more complicated than he said/she said. According to, “Anxiety Gender Gap: Are women really more anxious than men?” and “Women are Far More Anxious Than Men – Here’s The Science,” how much anxiety you have (or think you have) is determined by much, much more than your gender.

How much anxiety you feel depends on:

  • Your personality, your personal history
  • Your culture or nationality
  • How you were raised
  • Your hormones
  • Bias: women may be labeled as being anxious even when they are not, and men the opposite.
  • Your willingness to go for help. It is ironic that getting help leads to more stigma. Also, if you go for help, you become part of the statistics that track who gets anxious. And surprise, anxious men generally won’t go for help, whereas women will seek the help they so desperately need.
  • How much you talk about your feelings (Women talk, men clam up. Because women talk, they are perceived as being more anxious). Guess this is the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for mental health?
  • Your use of displacement (substituting one activity or emotion for another). If you feel anxious and then you reach for alcohol, you are engaging in displacement. Anger or violence can also be used in the same way. If a person is prone to anxiety but reaches for the bottle, they may be diagnosed with alcoholism, but not with anxiety which makes our statistics less accurate.

These factors settle onto men and women uniquely, and the result is that 2/3 of therapy patients are women. Both men and women have equal needs, but women are just more willing to seek the help.

Breathe into the Bag: It’s Time for a Little Honesty

Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but that doesn’t mean they feel more anxious than men. Men just find different ways to express our anxiety.

It’s time to get honest: we all feel anxious. Men are not the strong, silent types who don’t feel sad or anxious. Men just have different ways of expressing their feelings. We drink, we punch things, we play games where we shoot things, we drive fast, or we swing hammers. Don’t misunderstand: these things can be healthy ways of expressing our emotions. They can also become ways that we displace our emotions, unhealthy and overused.

Okay, we all need to breathe a little and calm down: Men feel anxious, women feel anxious. This is where a little Zen is required: same emotions, but there is an inherent bias on both sides. Women face bias when they express any emotion, they can be written off as being overly emotional or anxious. Men, hell, it takes a shit-storm for some men to recognize or express their emotions. Even then, the emotions may be written off as situational. Because we all know, boys don’t cry.

The reality is that every disorder is individual, not gender-based. Anxiety looks different not simply because of your gender, but because of the totality of who you are. And that is the full story of how you feel and express your anxiety.

There are a few things that you and I can do a few things about the “Anxiety Gender Gap.”

  • We can talk about it, honestly.  We can speak up to our sons and our daughters. We can also show, and talk about our own emotions as men. The Good Men Project is raising a conversation about manhood in the 21st Century and more and more men are being honest about their emotional lives.
  • We can be conscious that anxiety, and many other psychological factors, are worsened by rumination or repetitive thoughts. Investing time in our mental health, managing our thinking patterns and recognizing our obsessional thinking can go a long way to becoming more healthy. Exercise can help, good relationships and investing in good therapy are keys to good mental health.
  • We can be more active. Men have stumbled into one of the puzzling keys to the moods that challenge and cripple us: just getting busy can be a key to improving. Often the key to repetitive anxiety or worry is just getting up and doing something. This may not solve the problem, but it will help.
Women face bias when they express any emotion, they can be written off as being overly emotional or anxious. Men, hell, it takes a shit-storm for some men to recognize or express their emotions. Even then, the emotions may be written off as situational. Because we all know, boys don’t cry.

Today, I am much more able to manage my anxiety. I still feel it, and at times it is still difficult to manage. But I have more resources and I am much stronger. I attribute much of my growth to my willingness to speak up and get help. I have seen several doctors and I attend therapy. Whenever I share my story, men come out of the shadows and acknowledge their own pain.

Writing this article has made me realize that I don’t fit male stereotypes of not speaking up and refusing to go for help. The reality is that many men are like this, we speak up and we defy the bias in our culture. It’s time for a new conversation about men, gender and mental health.

How about you? Are you silent about your anxiety? At the Good Men Project, we want to hear from you, join the conversation. I hope to see you in the comments.

Keep it Real

These-Are-The-Stories-that-Change-Everything

Article first appeared in the Good Men Project. If you enjoyed this article, please read Addiction and the Unquiet Mind and My Journey Through Depression.

Photo by Hunter McGinnis

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