Brother, you are on my mind.
Over the past 12 years, working as a clinical psychologist, I have mostly worked with men and this has also been my biggest challenge; getting men to talk about their feelings.
Why is it that men are not so keen to talk about their feelings, yet one out of eight men will experience serious mental health issues at some point in time? More drastically, 3 out of 4 suicides are committed by men.
Stemming from the days when we were still living in caves and hunted the bush for food, our brain was wired to produce offspring and find the most suitable partner to mate with. Women looked for muscle clad men that were fast hunters, indicating future security for her and her children. The stronger, the faster, the better because our brains love exaggeration. She was satisfied with the illusion that she would be saved from the sabretooth tiger or rival tribe member who also wanted her good genes for his offspring.
Therefore, the male brain was wired to deprive itself of showing and expressing its true feelings, fears and emotions. Instead, aggression and anger seem appreciated and somewhat expected. Men have learned to mask depression and harden up when anxiety is present. Society feeds into these stigmas and still now, in 2018, men are perceived to be successful when they flaunt a full bank account and spend hours a day in a gym.
The male brain
In the center of our brain is the emotional brain. You can think of it as a brain inside a brain. Its structure, organization and cells is very different from the neocortex, which is our thinking brain. The emotional brain can function independently from the neocortex. The emotional brain controls everything that is linked to our emotional wellbeing and, regulates heart function, blood pressure, digestive system and immune system. It activates you when you need to fight a rivaling alpha male or flight from a sabretooth tiger. It shoots off neurotransmitters like adrenaline, cortisol and testosterone.
When we experience emotional disturbances, it is the result of a malfunctioning emotional brain. For a lot of people, this malfunctioning stems from painful past experiences. While there is likely no connection to the present day, these painful experiences can leave a non-erasable print in our emotional brain. These experiences can reappear and dominate what one feels and does, even years later. The emotional brain activates and controls our survival responses AND emotional state. Now you may begin to see why it is perceived to be so complicated to be a male.
Mental health and culture
In my psychology practice, I often see men who present with complaints such as feeling physically exhausted and men who use substances or risky behaviors to feel better. They say they are experiencing a decreased interest or pleasure in things they have always enjoyed. They don’t sleep well, feel angry, irritable or anxious. It is this response that a lot of men struggle to understand and communicate. They feel disconnected from their partner, children and friends and some simply want to withdraw. After some time they will often open up about past trauma, painful experiences, broken relationships and loss. When they begin to understand that, like everyone, their emotional brain reacts to these past experiences their symptoms begin to make more sense to them and the door to real change begins to open.
In a society where men learned from a young age that talking about feelings is for girls, it’s no big surprise that there is an unhealthy stigma and culture of ignorance among a lot of men. It’s like the overplayed song on the radio, even though you may be sick of it, you continue to listen over and over, it’s familiar and predictable. I say it’s time for some new music, and a new approach to how men deal with and talk about emotions, for their mental health and wellbeing and that of all of us.
Emotional healing starts with acknowledging your inner voice and emotions. Understanding that your emotions and symptoms make perfect sense, given what you have gone through but they don’t have to be a song stuck on repeat. Then, step by step you can learn how to change how you relate to and deal with emotions. Growing in mindfulness, self-control and emotional maturity every step of the way.
By Ampara Bouwens ~ Clinical Psychologist and Mindfulness trainer at Renew Your Mind