As I was putting my last article together, I became really curious about why it seemed that almost all of the people who came forward and offered to share their personal experiences with me regarding anxiety were women. The men who I know suffer from anxiety were really reluctant to talk when I approached them. They either didn't want to talk to me about it at all (for the purpose of my column) or offered to give me tidbits of information as long as they remained entirely anonymous. Even the idea of giving only their first name, profession and city of residence was far too close for comfort. The slightest chance of being outed as someone with anxiety ("what if my colleagues find out it's me?") was enough to bring on a bout of panic. Stereotypically, we know that men don't like to talk about their feelings and certainly aren't inclined to want to openly share their deepest fears or weaknesses with a wider audience -- or any audience at all. However, I was convinced that there had to be more to the story.
I sat down with Toronto-based psychologist Dr. Eliana Cohen, who has treated many people over 15 years with a wide range of anxiety-related ailments (obsessive-compulsive, generalized anxiety, phobias, social and post-traumatic stress disorders, among many others) and she gave me some good insight as to what the deal is with guys and anxiety. She verified what many of us have already thought: that men are generally taught to be brave and that showing emotional weakness such as anxiety is a no-no. This is more or less common knowledge, but when you dig a little deeper things get more interesting.
Men do in fact suffer from anxiety albeit in less cases than their female counterparts. Dr. Cohen said that there is a prevalence rate of 5 percent of women who suffer from panic disorder (meaning, a recurring fear of having another panic attack), whereas this number drops to only 2 percent for men. They tend to push through their fears and anxieties more readily. The triggers and sensations associated with having panic attacks are very much the same for both sexes. Okay, so fewer men suffer from panic disorder, but we all have the same symptoms. We know that men try to put on a brave face more than women do, but inquiring minds want to know: Why?
According to Dr. Cohen, women are more prone to use our emotions as our guides. Essentially, we (women) have a feeling and think that there must be a reason behind it, and are more inclined to validate that emotion. We tend to think about and focus on the way that we're feeling because to us, we believe that the feeling must really mean something. This is partly why women are more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (also known as the "worrywart disorder") whereby everyday activities can cause excessive and ongoing anxiety.
Men, on the other hand, are more emotion-dismissing. They'll have a thought or feeling and can move on and forget it just as quickly as the thought entered their minds. As Dr. Cohen put it, you'll often hear a man say "it's not a big deal" while in conversation, which can enrage the woman listener. But the fact is, the man declaring something as not being a big deal really means it. (No, he's not trying to wind you up). The woman may express her feelings, thinking it's the biggest news of the century, while the man is able to let it roll right off his back. This knowledge alone can tell you quite a lot about how communication breakdowns can happen so easily between the two sexes -- we really do think very differently.
Men also tend to externalize their coping methods, which is why they're more likely to develop substance abuse and alcohol issues as a way of dealing with their anxiety and stress.
I wondered where all of this comes from. Why are men more inclined to push through their fears than are women? Dr. Cohen said that men are socialized to not reveal fear or anxiety and therefore use different coping mechanisms. She gave a great example that exemplifies the way that men and women are socialized differently as children. According to a scientific study, young children were asked to solve a problem with their mothers present. What researchers found was that the girls' mothers tended to offer them assistance in finding the solution to the problem throughout the exercise. The boys' mothers, on the other hand, remained present but offered the child little or no help in finding the answer -- they let the boy come up with the solution on his own. One could argue that as children, girls are coddled more than boys, and boys are left to figure it out by themselves.
Understanding that men generally fear less than women do and have a greater ability to push through their anxieties, it leaves me wondering why is it that men are less likely to talk? Couldn't you argue that the ability to openly discuss your phobias, especially given the stigma attached to mental health issues, takes more bravery than it does to hide it? The courage that it takes to be open about your anxiety -- whether you're a man or a woman -- should be revered, not frowned upon.
Here's some good news for anyone who suffers from panic disorder: Dr. Cohen says that it's one of the easiest mental ailments to mend. She recommends using cognitive behavioral therapy and in only six to eight sessions with a psychologist, you may be able to get a handle on your attacks and can get back to living your life.
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