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Men can achieve better mental health by
getting in touch with their emotions
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By Nicole Neault
May/June 2018

Nothing is wrong. I'm fine. I can handle it.

Sound familiar?

In western culture we encourage boys to be tough, strong and independent. We admire them when they can face adversity with courage and fearlessness. Challenges in life are inevitable, regardless of our gender; however, boys and men who have been socialized to accept these ideals may believe that experiencing or expressing feelings of sadness, worry, or loss means that they are weak, needy or open to ridicule.

Resiliency and positive mental well-being are built on the ability to manage challenges in life, not ignore them. So while some men may attempt to hide or ignore their feelings and needs in order to feel capable of handling them, they actually may be putting their mental health at greater risk. There are a variety of ways to acknowledge and cope with emotions and challenges that do not leave men feeling fragile or vulnerable.

Traditional masculinity teaches boys that they should not complain or show that they are unwell or upset. These expectations and the stigma that surrounds mental health issues set men up to suffer in silence when they are struggling with emotional distress. Serious symptoms may be trivialized, and research suggests that some men may not even recognize that they are suffering until it becomes a crisis. Seeking help is seen as a last resort. When they do reach out they frequently seek support from a female partner or close female acquaintance rather than seeking out professional medical or psychological help. Younger men are more likely to use technology and the Internet to seek out advice or information.

We will all experience some form of stress or distress in our lives, regardless of our gender, age or culture. Even positive changes or transitions in life can create stress. Examples include getting a new job, buying a home, getting married, going back to school or retiring. How well we navigate those challenges in life can be dependent on our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health at the time. How men are socialized can also play a role in how they manage or respond, especially if they adhere to the masculine norms of suppressing emotions.

In fact, the suppression of emotions can lead to an increase in stress and negative mood. Substance abuse, irritability, anger and social withdrawal may be long-term consequences of ignoring or minimizing high levels of stress. This can then lead to poor mental health, which is also associated with poor physical health, more absenteeism from work and school, and decreased quality of relationships and participation in life. So what is a guy to do?

Here are a few suggestions:

Connect with other people

Why? Because people who have close trusting relationships with others - whether it is a family member, friend, co-worker, or friendly neighbour - are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping. Connecting with others in meaningful ways can also improve your happiness and satisfaction in life.

Photo of two older men talking while fishing

Get active

Not only is it good for the body but also good for the mind and soul. There is nothing like a game of football, a run with the dog, or cycling through the park to reduce stress and improve your mood. Physical exercise has also been proven to improve sleep, increase concentration and improve energy levels. Numerous studies have also shown that exercise can combat depression and anxiety symptoms.

Stop and take some time to relax

Relaxing will be different for each person. Some great examples are listening to music, art, photography, woodworking, or fishing. Don't let gender stereotypes get in the way of enjoying a hot bath or a yoga class. Meditation and relaxation exercises are also good for reducing stress. You can do these in the comfort of your own home. Remember, stress reduction is universal; we all need time to relax and rejuvenate.

Laugh more often

Laughter releases chemicals that help to reduce stress. Enjoy spending time with someone who has a good sense of humor.

Reduce or eliminate alcohol and drug use

They may help us feel better temporarily but in the long run they can make things worse and can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Consider getting help

Don't wait until life seems unmanageable or out of control. It doesn't mean you are less of a man. On the contrary, it shows courage and initiative to seek out help when you need it. Everyone needs a variety of tools in their toolbox for the different situations they may encounter. Sometimes it means seeking advice from someone else in order to address the problem.

Photo of a happy father holding his child

Notice the positive

Easy to say; harder to do. Research suggests that some of us are born with a greater amount of optimism than others. However, we can all work towards a more positive frame of mind. Practise gratitude. Take the time to think of some positive things that have occurred every day. Mindfulness is another way to learn to live in the present moment and enjoy experiences more. Recognize your strengths and talents and use them to assist you when life becomes difficult. Re-framing challenges as opportunities can also bring a sense of satisfaction.

We all want to thrive and flourish in life. Sometimes for men, the way they have been socialized sets them up to respond with either a fight or flight response in situations where they feel stressed, vulnerable, or fearful. We need to let boys and men know that they are human. Being a man also means having emotions and needs and it is okay to talk about them or reach out for help. This will bring health and vitality to our families, communities and society as a whole.

Nicole Neault is a mental health promotion facilitator with the Winnipeg Health Region. This column was originally published in the summer 2015 issue of Wave.