We Need to Open Up the Conversation About Men and Anxiety

Photo:

Stocksy/Sergey Filimonov

Sixty-one percent of millennials suffer from high or above-average anxiety. Take moment to let that sink in. That’s over half of millennials, myself included, who on a regular—perhaps daily, maybe even hourly—basis are suffering from anxious tendencies, that sick feeling when you’re so stressed you can’t breathe, panic attacks and more.

Here’s the thing with anxiety: In my experience at least, women generally feel comfortable speaking about it. Yes, we shy away from the topic for the fear of being perceived as weak or unconfident, but put me in a group of women I feel comfortable with and chances are that if I’m feeling anxious, I’ll express it because we’re finally at a point where discussing our mental health feels safe.

A recent report by the Global Benefits Attitude study stated that 48% of millennials were more likely to talk about stress or mental health problems, so while we’re probably reluctant at first, we do talk—but what about the men suffering with anxiety? According to a study compiled by Men’s Health Forum, 12.5% of men in the UK suffer from common mental health disorders, yet only 36% of referrals to Access to Psychological Therapies are men.

Anna Wintour once said in an interview with New York magazine that mental health is an area where people are embarrassed, and in 2018, that statement still rings so true. We live in a society where men have been put up on a masculine pedestal where they must appear strong, confident and unaffected by emotions, for fear that they appear too anxious they might come across as “feminine” or “too” sensitive.

The conversation surrounding men and mental health is so closed off that those suffering most likely feel ashamed to discuss it with loved ones or seek professional help. But why is this? To try to understand, I decided to speak to three men who suffer from varying types of anxiety.

Ed. note: Some names have been changed for the purpose of this article.

Paul, 28

Can you describe your symptoms?

My anxiety symptoms vary from heart palpitations and shortness of breath to not being able to focus on simple tasks because I feel so anxious.

Has anxiety affected both your career and your personal life, and if so, how?

Yes, 100%, it’s affected (and still does affect) both my work life and my personal life. At work, I can become very closed off, which can negatively impact others around me and has stopped me from going to work—however, it still feels taboo to bring up, so I often make other excuses.

Why do you think it’s important we talk about anxiety, particularly among men?

It’s so important to highlight anxiety amongst men or nonbinary people so we’re aware that we’re not alone. I’m so fortunate my close friendship group is very open about anxiety, and the support is there, but it’s harder for men to reach out. Men can be closed off, which makes outreach and support difficult. I think it often comes down to friends, peers, partners or colleagues to notice to signs and help them seek help. And on that note, pieces like this are a good way for people who don’t suffer from anxiety to understand how debilitating it can be for people, and know how to spot when a friend or partner is going through a bad spell.

What helps you when you’re feeling anxious, and what would you tell someone suffering from anxiety?

Most of the time I just have to take some time to myself to use some form of meditation or breathing techniques. If I’m feeling particularly bad, the main thing that helps is to talk to a friend—sometimes just talking through how I’m feeling and why helps take the load off. That it’s your bodily reaction to how you’re feeling. That you are in control of how you feel, and you will get through this. I think it’s so important to acknowledge that everyone is in control of their body and emotions, and you will not feel like this forever. It makes the situation manageable, which in turn de-escalates the issue.

Michael, 27

How would you describe your anxiety?

It’s under control now, and it’s very hard to explain in terms of exact physical symptoms, but the best way I can describe it is being acutely aware of yourself, overanalysing situations and people. I didn’t wake up anxious one day—I noticed it through time, and it’s only with hindsight that I noticed I was becoming more withdrawn and avoiding certain social situations. Even making simple chat felt like a real effort.

Do you feel men have enough support when it comes to mental health and anxiety?

No, but that’s not just limited to men. There’s a real lack of support in terms of access to getting treatment or support through the NHS. My GP was amazing, but I know others who haven’t been so lucky. 

Why do you think men have an especially hard time opening up about anxiety?

It’s hard because men typically find it hard to open up and talk about their feelings. We’re more likely to have our deepest chats with randoms in the smoking area of a bar than with our best mates.

What helps you when you’re feeling anxious, and what would you tell someone suffering from anxiety? 

I’ve done some mindfulness courses, which helped, and I’m on Venlafaxine, which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It’s pretty commonly prescribed, and it works wonders. The thing with anxiety is it passes, but only when you’re willing to seek help, and when you do, it’s weirdly liberating. When I posted a picture on Instagram last year, I received so much support and so many wonderful comments.

Joe, 27

How would you describe your anxiety?

I’d say in general I suffer from low-level anxiety characterised by heart palpitations, shortness of breath, neurotic racing thoughts and rumination. I suppose I’m no different to anyone else, except for the severity of my symptoms. My heart pounds so hard I’m pretty sure you could hear it in a different room, I sweat, I shake, I feel nauseous, my facial muscles freeze and I can’t think properly or talk, really.

A study reported that 70% of men felt anxiety affected their work, and 80% of men felt it impacted their social life—how has it affected you?

It has massively affected my work life and my social life. Work-wise, I’ve decided not to go for jobs through the fear of being too anxious in the interview, and day to day, it affects my concentration, which limits my productivity. Just the other day I had to go to the toilet to calm down for 10 minutes for no reason in particular. This all makes me feel insecure about my standing at work, which frustrates me, as I know I could do better.

Why do you think men have a harder time opening up about their anxiety or mental health?

I’ve always thought that the reason men don’t like to acknowledge or admit that they’re anxious is that they fear that not only will their mates take the piss but that women will see them as less attractive too. You often hear women encouraging men to talk about their problems and engage with their emotions, but I don’t think men believe they want to hear it.

Broadly speaking, I think a lot of men think, If I open the floodgates, I’ll never stop talking about it, and it wouldn’t be long before she gets bored. Women want a funny, confident man. Maybe that’s a bit cynical, but I think that faced—in their heads—with the choice of being understood by someone and being intimate with someone, men choose to bottle it up.

What do you think we need to do to encourage more to talk about anxiety and make it a safe space?

We need to get men to encourage each other to open up for mental health campaigns, too, and open up the discussion to include men more. I guess the more we talk about anxiety as a women’s issue, as a feminine thing, the more we reinforce the idea that anxiety is not a masculine thing—which makes men feel guilty or ashamed. So the more men that talk, the less feminine it becomes.

What helps you when you’re feeling anxious, and what would you tell someone suffering from anxiety?

Running, writing, mindfulness, or just cutting down or cutting out things like caffeine and alcohol. I’d probably say your anxiety will have played a huge role in forming your personality, your interests, your social life and your experiences, so inevitably (and weirdly) your anxiety is responsible for lots of amazing things about you and your life. It helps to bear this in mind—don’t think of it as a curse!

If you or anyone you know suffers from anxiety, please consult medical help.