Many years ago my boyfriend warned me not to fall in love with him because of his anxiety. "I get in these moods," he told me as we sat in a bar on a cold November evening. "I'm on an upswing right now," he said. "But it's not always like this." He topped my glass with champagne and smiled, a melancholy look in his eyes. 20 years later, having studied Psychology and witnessed the mental health movement for men grow I found myself revisiting this scene and thinking about where we are now and what action we can take when it comes to men and their mental wellbeing.
According to a study from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), an organisation that aims to help people with mental health issues, “around 1 in 8 men have a common mental health problem like anxiety”. They also affirm that “men have been found to be less likely to access psychological therapies than women. Men only make up 36% of referrals to Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)”
But why are men so afraid of asking for help? Is it just society’s expectations? For men, societal expectations about how men “should” behave, includes masculine traits like strength, stoicism, dominance, and control. “Big boys don’t cry” attitudes can still be dominant. They are slowly changing but these traditional ideas may still bring a negative impact on men’s mental health. As a consequence, the MHF says that suicide represents “the largest cause of death for men under 50”.
What I have certainly learnt is that not everyone's anxiety or mental wellbeing looks the same and people struggle n different ways. Helen Odessky, psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You. adds "Sometimes it is subtle because the person is embarrassed and may try to hide it."
Sometimes it's more overt than this, of course.
You can't control another person's anxiety, no matter how badly you want to. But there are ways you can help modify your behaviour in order to be a good ally. It’s a learning process, but the following tips from mental health experts are helpful reminders. If you have a male partner, friend, or family member with anxiety, keep scrolling to learn psychologists' tips for what to do (and what not to do) to support them.
1. Notice the signs
According to psychotherapist Julienne Derichs, there are three main ways anxiety can show up: generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and social anxiety. "Most anxiety disorder symptoms include restlessness or feeling on edge, being easily fatigued, having difficulty concentrating, increased irritability, muscle tension, difficulty controlling worry, and sleep problems," she says. But again, not everyone with anxiety will show all these signs.
Social anxiety is fairly common. It describes social anxiety as when a person feels "highly anxious about being with other people." They might have a hard time talking to others or feel worried about being humiliated, judged, or rejected by them. "Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be, staying away from places where there are other people, having a hard time making friends … and feeling sick to your stomach when other people are around" are all signs of social anxiety, says Derichs.
By contrast, someone with panic disorder might have "sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear," called panic attacks, accompanied by feeling out of control, worrying about when the next attack will occur, or avoiding places where past panic attacks have happened. Understanding the difference between these forms of anxiety will help you notice them in the people you care about.
2. Educate yourself
"It's important for both partners to learn about anxiety and really understand what the triggers are," says Tunde Vanko, Clinical Psychologist. Becoming acquainted with the signs outlined above—and identifying the specific ones that apply to your loved one—is a good start. But there are also physical techniques that you can do together during moments of anxiety.
"As simple as it may sound, being armed with some breathing techniques and using them as a guide when your partner or friend is having an increase in anxiety can be a very helpful tool," Vanko says. Here's a relaxing breathing technique that Vanko calls the "instant tranquilizer:" Inhale through the nose, hold for a moment, then exhale out slowly through your mouth and nose. Repeat two or three times. "As you let the air out, let go. Relax your muscles—release as much tension as you can," Vanko says. If your loved one starts to feel anxious in the car or in public, this can be a simple but handy exercise.
You can do all the research in the world, but when it comes to your loved one's anxiety, it's important to let them do the talking. Let them talk about how they feel without judgment. Even if their anxiety doesn't make sense to you, simply listening will help everyone see it more clearly.
What you definitely don't want to do is start explaining your loved one's anxiety to them. Do not start using logic to prove that there is nothing to worry or be anxious about. Most of the time, unless you are talking to a child, the person already knows that, and they end up feeling worse.
But what you can do is ask genuine, non-judgmental questions to encourage an honest conversation about what they're feeling. As Mike Dow, brain health expert and author of Healing the Broken Brain, says, "Ask them if they have an idea of where this anxiety comes from. That understanding can go a long way."
4. Vocalize your support
Here's another tip that sounds so simple but took me way too long to grasp. Let them know you still love, support, and respect them. Many people worry that they will lose those things if they disclose their anxiety.
5. Distract them
"Studies show that distraction relieves the brain's anxiety center," says Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of the upcoming Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. He suggests to do something pleasurable or productive when you notice yourself stewing." So when your loved one starts feeling anxious, don't hesitate to take them out to a movie, dinner, grocery shopping, or a walk around the neighbourhood.
6. Don't trivialize their anxiety
"Stop stressing," "stop worrying," "suck it up," and "what's wrong with you?" are all things to avoid saying to your anxious loved one, according to experts. These phrases often make people even more anxious, Pillay says. “If they could simply ‘stop-worrying’ they would. Unfortunately, anxiety is more complicated than that. Their brain is likely to be wired differently. They probably have an overactive amygdala, a part of the brain involved in fear, and an underactive prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that can act as the brakes."
Calling your loved one "crazy" might make them feel judged, which will decrease the likelihood they seek professional help. So, in order for treatment to be effective, they need to feel safe and open about their fears and where they come from. For someone without anxiety, being called "crazy" might not seem like a big deal, but it might be to your loved one.
7. Don't enable it either
Being a helpful ally to your anxious loved one is a good thing—but allowing their anxiety to control both of your lives is not. The goal is to be supportive, not to walk on eggshells or radically change your life to accommodate the person with anxiety. Doing so removes the need for the person to address and overcome their anxiety." The focus should always be on progressing and getting better—not on letting the anxiety rule everyone's life.
8. Consider therapy
I am of the belief that anyone can benefit from therapy. It helps to understand what the thought processes are, how it's triggered, and what to do. Everyone is different, so it's helpful to have a game plan that factors in boundaries and approaches that work. The professional relationship is also important so never feel that the first therapist is the only one you can work with. It might take time to find the right professional.
If time and cost are preventing you from seeing a professional, consider an online therapy service, like Talkspace, which makes the whole thing more convenient and manageable.
9. Ask how you can help
When you find yourself feeling helpless about their anxiety, remember: You don't have to guess or rely on therapists and research. Because you can always simply ask your loved one how you can be supportive. Some people want others around, while someone else may want privacy. So when in doubt, do the simplest thing: Ask.
If you are seeking support or you know someone that is facing challenges there are some amazing organisations that can help. Check out the list below:
- The Talk Club: https://www.wetalkclub.com/
- CALM: https://www.thecalmzone.net
- Men’s Health Foundation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk
- Chasing the Stigma: https://chasingthestigma.co.uk
Give yourself some value: Treat yourself with kindness and respect
To promote men’s health, the Movember foundation hosts an annual campaign to raise awareness and funds to help men with mental health issues, during November. Founded in 2003 by Adam Garone and Travis Garone, this movement uses moustaches as the driving symbol, “Grow a Mo to save a Bro”. This foundation encourages men to let their moustaches grow and be part of different activities during this month. https://uk.movember.com
Do you have any tips for how to handle a loved one's anxiety? Tell us your stories in the comments below!