Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in our society. We often think of anxiety as being a woman freaking out or being unable to handle things. While this can be what anxiety looks like, it also takes on many other forms. Anxiety also looks very different for men.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a lack of belief in one’s self. People often say that events cause anxiety. This is not true. Take, for example, anxiety about talking in front of a large group of people. If talking in front of a group of people created anxiety, everyone in the world would have anxiety when talking in front of people. This is false, there are many people who enjoy being front of people and many who are comfortable doing it as well. If a person believes he cannot handle talking in front of a group of people, then he will have anxiety. Anxiety is not about the event, it is about his belief in his ability to handle the event.
Anxiety is lack of confidence. If a person does not believe in himself, does not have confidence, he will have more anxiety. Many men feel confident in their work environment. This is usually because they have training, education, experience, mentors, supervisors or rules/policies/procedures in place. These help with direction and guidance and allow a man to feel more confident in his ability to make decisions at work. If men had these types of things in place in regular daily living, their confidence would be significantly higher in other areas as well, thus reducing their anxiety. Lack of confidence creates anxiety.
So, what does anxiety look like in men?
One of the most significant ways men cope with anxiety is through anger. When a man (or woman, it applies to both) gets angry, people generally back off and leave him alone. This in turn, reduces anxiety because they no longer have to deal with the situation or the subject changes to “why are you always angry” as opposed to the topic that was creating the anxiety.
Anger works in the moment to get others to back off and not challenge him but anger also works when there is no anger. Men who use anger often are known for being angry, so even when they are not angry, people walk on egg shells around them in order to avoid the possibility of anger happening. People tippy toe around him and try not to challenge him in order to avoid the possibility of anger.
Anger not only stops the situation from happening, thus reducing anxiety, it is also a coping strategy to avoid feeling other emotions. Anger is a secondary emotion. Under the anger are emotions like fear, anxiety, vulnerability, shame, embarrassment, rejection, jealousy, lonely etc. Men don’t want to feel these other emotions so they switch to anger so they don’t have to feel these other emotions.
The most common way people deal with anxiety is through avoidance. But, a sure way to increase anxiety is also avoidance.
People don’t like to feel anxious so they avoid situations that make them feel anxious. The longer a man avoids anxiety-invoking situations the higher the anxiety becomes. Remember, anxiety is not about the situation, it is about his lack of belief in himself to handle the situation. The more he puts it off, the more doubt he has in his ability to handle the situation.
As a therapist, it is much easier to help a person over come his anxiety of heights when he is 12 as opposed to when he is 40 years old. The 12 year old has only avoided heights for a short period of time, so he hasn’t had as many opportunities to tell himself he cannot do it. A 40 year old adult has told himself he cannot do heights so many times that he believes it way more than a 12 year old. This repeated message over many years, makes it much more challenging for him to overcome his anxiety around heights.
People don’t like to feel anxiety, so avoid situations that create anxiety, thus, in turn, creating more anxiety. Often when a couple has an issue that is creating conflict they do not want to discuss the issue because “things are going well”, they don’t want to rock the boat and create conflict. However, waiting to address an issue when there is already conflict is extremely unproductive, so often the issue never gets resolved and continues to create problems in the relationship for years.
Many men work away from home for most of the day. When they return home after work, it can often be challenging for them to find their place in the family. The mother and children have their routine and roles for the day and most of this does not include dad. So, when dad gets home, he often isn’t sure what his role or responsibility is. This creates anxiety, which is often dealt with by avoiding. Slowly over time, the man, or Dad, of the family starts to withdraw. Withdrawal can come in many different forms. It can be handing decisions off to the wife, sleeping or napping during the day or after dinner, doing activities with friends rather than being with his family, spending more time at work, zoning out in front of the television or just not engaging with his family members. Often men will also use alcohol, marijuana or other drugs to check out. Men, in general are often more likely to use alcohol or drugs to cope with anxiety.
This checking out behavior can be from anxiety around not having a place in the family but can also be created from general anxiety (meaning anxiety that he had been carrying with him for years). When a man feels more vulnerable, he will often have more anxiety about feeling vulnerable. This triggers the strategies he uses to cope with anxiety, like checking out. Being around and connected to people he loves the most and who are the most important in his life, like is partner and children, make him feel more vulnerable, which creates anxiety, which creates the need to cope with anxiety by checking out, or using other strategies.
When he uses anger to cope with feeling vulnerable around the people he loves, he creates a disconnect between him and his family, (feeling angry towards them or them feeling angry towards him) thus reducing the vulnerability (through sense of connection) and then reducing anxiety as well.
Numbing with Alcohol and Drugs.
Numbing emotion rather than feeling emotion is also a significant strategy men use. Men grow up in a society that tells men they are supposed to be strong. They are told to “suck it up,” “be a man,” “stop being a sissy,” “man up,” etc whenever they experience emotion. Society says men can feel two emotions, happy and angry, that’s it! Society says if a man show anxiety, fear, sadness, vulnerability etc he is weak.
Men are human, they do feel these emotions but they are taught to suppress them, to push the emotion down, bury it. In order to do this, they numb themselves. This pushing down emotions and not being allowed to express emotions all creates anxiety. Anxiety is lack of belief in self. If a man is not allowed to show his emotion, he is not allowed to be himself. Lack of confidence is created by not being who he is, suppressing a part of himself, like his emotion.
When an adult man has been carrying all these buried emotions for decades, numbing becomes a survival coping strategy. If they were allowed to feel all these emotions they’ve been carrying for decades, it would be way too overwhelming so they have to keep numbing these emotions. The more they numb and avoid the emotions, the more the anxiety increases.
The more they numb the emotions, the more disconnected they feel from their families so the more they avoid their families. The more they disconnect and avoid from their families the more anxiety they create for themselves. Common ways men numb emotions is self medicating with alcohol or drugs. Alcohol and drugs stop the brain from racing and slows thoughts down. Alcohol and drugs also numb emotions so they are not as overwhelming. After a long day at work, please often have a drink to "relax." The alcohol numbs the emotions.
Lack of responsibility
Taking ownership or responsibility for one’s actions is directly connected to a person’s anxiety level, or belief in self. Responsibility happens when a person believes in himself enough, that he can handle taking responsibility. If a man does not believe he can handle taking responsibility for something, he won’t do it. Avoiding responsibility comes in a variety of different ways. People avoid responsibility by blaming, justifying, avoiding, denying, or excusing.
Strong belief in self --> confidence --> ability to take responsibility.
Lack of belief in self--> lack of confidence --> lack of ability to take responsibility.
The inner voice
People are constantly trying to prove to themselves what they believe about themselves is true. If a person believes he is not good enough, not valued, worthless, unlovable, he will be drawn to situations and people that prove to him this belief of self is true.
If people believe they are not good enough, not valued, worthless, unlovable, they will have self doubt.
If people believe they are not good enough, not valued, worthless, unlovable, they will have anxiety.
In order to reduce anxiety, a person must first become aware of his true inner voice, what he really believes about himself. If he is not aware of what he believes about himself, he cannot change it. Once he is aware of his true inner voice, or core belief, then he has to make conscious decisions to challenge that voice and change it. The more he challenges that core belief and changes the core belief, the more confident he will become and the less anxious he will be.