Many men have a difficult time recognizing that they are depressed. Men often interpret the word "depression" as describing a state of helplessness or hopelessness, accompanying a general sense of feeling fragile or vulnerable. In many ways our culture conditions men to ignore these states or to experience little awareness of them. Men are taught "boys don't cry," and are uniformly rewarded with praise and validation when they "act like a man" instead of tearing up or expressing fear in response to a harshly distressing encounter. Such an encounter might be a football injury or a harsh and critical baseball coach or an abusive peer. After years of this kind of persistent reinforcement these boys grow into men with a form of blindness whereby they often do not see or understand the nature of depression. In ignorance they become bound by painfully repetitive behaviors and feelings with no knowledge that they can change. What men do recognize is what they call "stress" and they will commonly describe events and situations as stressful with no awareness that those events and situations are the triggers stimulating an internal state of dis-ease that often leads to depression. The following are some of the less recognizable experiences that men commonly describe as "stressful" or "stress-related" and that are symptomatic of depression.
SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
high levels of anxiety, irritability, and/or anger; low energy and/or fatigue; difficulties concentrating; frequent worries about others' opinions; loss or lack of confidence; loss of interest in favorite activities; weight loss or gain; loss of sex drive; sleep problems; inability to relax; addictions; obsessive-compulsive behavior; frequent suffering from vague physical ailments.
TRIGGERS OF DEPRESSION
Many normal and joyous life experiences can trigger depression. A new relationship, a new baby, a new home or job, a large inheritance, or even winning the lottery. Each of these events bring additional and, at times, unfamiliar experiences that can challenge a man's sense of confidence to address such responsibilities. Generally, when men feel a lack of confidence they will double up their efforts. However, when such efforts fail and a man's confidence is compromised longer than is tolerable his sense of self worth is diminished and that places him at risk for depression.
Separation, divorce, loss of a job, retirement, death of a loved one, constant and unrelenting pressures from others to do things their way--these also can tax a man's sense of competency and self-worth. As commonly learned growing up, men experiencing loss will tend to suppress tears and sadness and will instead present a "stiff upper lip," or get busy and support others, or express anger at the perceived offender, or find ways to occupy their thoughts so they can avoid uncomfortable feelings. As well they will reject any idea that they cannot optimally perform. And if, by chance, they do have trouble functioning effectively, they will suffer intense anxiety, tension, and fatigue. When this happens and they cannot change what they believe is causing their distress, they will begin experiencing more of the symptoms listed above.
Physical illness and unrelenting pain can also trigger depression. Pain is the body's red alert system that something is misfiring, and the nervous system is the first responder to engage our defense system to bring relief. When pain is intense enough or it persists long enough it creates unrelieved stress on our natural biological defense systems. Once that happens our immune system and other related defense systems become compromised and can no longer provide necessary relief. One of the common results of this biologically-based depletion is depression. The biological and chemical effects of untreated depression then synergistically trigger an even wider system breakdown that further weakens our body and makes us susceptible to other physical disorders.
THE BLIND BIND OF MALE DEPRESSION
Men are conditioned from the time they are little boys to be problem solvers, doers, thinkers, and action takers. Such conditioning primes them to naturally assume the roles of dedicated employee at work and primary caretaker at home. They push themselves to meet time lines, sales quotas, budget schedules, financial, emotional, and professional expectations of family and friends. They are not taught to consider or are not aware of the cost these pressures can impose on their physical well being and emotional peace of mind. They are blinded to the understanding that if the cost gets high enough fatigue, irritability, impatience, and the other symptoms listed above start to manifest. They do not recognize that in an effort to gain relief from these symptoms they engage in behaviors that potentially exacerbate the problem. And so, in ignorance, they compulsively and impulsively bind with the distracting excitement or mind numbing experience of a increasing variety of behaviors. Some examples include alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, spending, long periods on the internet, and working harder and longer. Ultimately, instead of bringing relief, these binding behaviors bring an additional set of worries that now includes substance-related depression, financial debt, social isolation, family conflict, a shame-driven perception of self, and a widening rift between the painful state of depression and the support that can bring relief and healing.
HEALING FROM THE BLIND BIND OF DEPRESSION
Men did not ask for this blind-bind state of being. And they cannot return to their pasts and change the experiences that conditioned them to overlook or ignore or to have little understanding of the symptoms of depression and the interactions that trigger it. However, men can learn to recognize the symptoms and then, at the very least, seek out more information. Depression is treatable and a few basic steps can begin the process. Awareness is fundamental. The next step requires action. Here are some recommendations:
get eight hours sleep; do something you enjoy each week; walk for twenty minutes, three times a week; eat healthy meals that include fruits/vegetables--depression leeches the body of nutrients; schedule a massage; practice deep, slow breathing throughout the day; take a work breakgo in late, leave early, take the day off; consult with a physician; talk about frustrations with a trusted friend; get professional counseling.
This last suggestion, getting professional help, is significantly important. Often men know that these activities can help to lift their mood and alleviate stress but hard as they try, they falter at following through with them. Understandably. Depression is a condition that effects the mind, the body, and the emotions. Many men routinely grow up with few tools to address these areas when compromised. However, with the help of a skilled psychotherapist who has experience and training working with men in the treatment of depression and anxiety the blind bind of male depression can release. And with that release men can then acquire the tools to alleviate the symptoms of depression, to prevent its debilitating reoccurrence, and to live with a consistent sense of healthy and enjoyable connection with self and others.