Man hugging woman on street on a rainy night, kissing her forehead

Anxiety can often feel like a third person in your relationships. The anxiety can create distance based on irrationalism, fear and insecurity. Even the most loving, attentive, patient partner can suddenly feel unsafe and unreliable. A kiss can feel inauthentic; a kind word rings out like a lie. And if you don’t have the skills to combat it, it can lead you toward self-destructive behaviors that can tear away at even the most stable relationships.

I struggle with this. A lot. So I created a series of questions for myself to make sure I don’t open the floodgates to irrational and entirely unneeded relational strife:

1. What evidence/experience supports these thoughts?

“He doesn’t love me anymore.” “She’s mad at me.” “I am a terrible person.” “This is going to be bad.” These kinds of thoughts are not only toxic, they are powerful. They can trigger a series of behaviors that support their irrationality so what was once merely a fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes I need to physically respond to these thoughts and create pros and cons lists that either support a positive conclusion or work to negate irrational thinking.

2. What part of my cycle am I in? Are there other physical triggers?

I have significantly increased depression and anxiety symptoms during my menstrual cycle and fertility period. This is called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and it affects a small percentage of women. Occasionally, the symptoms are debilitating for me. But some months, they are significantly reduced. So I have to track my cycle and keep tabs on my emotional and physical state during these times.

3. What can I do to release these emotions?

Whether you run or paint or cook or write or sing… it is so important to develop a go-to you can find release in. Personally, I work out and I write. This creates a safe space to fully dump all those fear-based, hard-to-deal-with emotions.

Now, I am not suggesting you avoid authentic communication with your friends, family or partner. Keep communicating. Keep building mutual understanding. Keep telling someone what you are feeling. But don’t make them responsible for your emotional well-being. You need to be responsible for it. They’re there to love and support you. But you have to develop ways to cope and sort through things on your own as well.

I hope this helps you, too. Remember that you are loved. And you are stronger than you realize.

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First things first, I can not stress enough this article is absolutely not meant to belittle or minimize the struggle women with anxiety issues face. This is just going to be a look at how men can be affected in a unique way. We’re all facing this together, no matter your sex, race, religion or any other factor, and I would never belittle anyone’s experiences. Everyone going through this ordeal has my respect and full support. Everyone.

That said, I’d like to give some background on who I am, and why I wrote this.

My name is Brian. I’m 35 now, and, when I can, I work as an artist in various media. I had a very early introduction to anxiety issues when my mother had what was called at the time a “nervous breakdown” when I was about 10 years old. “Mental illness” was not the household word it is today, and there was a lot of stigma attached. Needless to say, it was a trying time for my whole family. Fortunately, my mother has made a pretty complete recovery, and has served as a guide and invaluable source of support for me in my own struggles. I’d be negligent if I didn’t also acknowledge the huge role my devoted and loving father played, both in her recovery, and in my own struggles. When many men would have skimped on the “for better or worse” vow, he doubled down, and gave my siblings and I a wonderful, beautiful living example of true love and devotion. In this way, I am extremely blessed.

My own struggles with anxiety began in my late teens, intensified into my early 20s and continues to this day. For me, it comes in massive waves that last weeks, months, even years at a time. There have been periods of up to about two years at a time when it has been essentially in remission, and there have been times when I couldn’t leave my house (even though the attacks continue there, too). Needless to say, I’ve put in my time in the saddle. I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two along the way, but this disease is wily as a fox, so it’s never wise to get too cocky.

Our society puts a lot of expectations on men. We’re supposed to be tough, good providers, confident, decisive and rational. We’re supposed to be the rock in the relationship. The steady hand on the tiller. Fearless in the face of danger, and ready and able to protect at the drop of a hat.

I was feeling particularly down one day, and couldn’t quite put a finger on why it was. After some reflection and meditation, I figured it out. A young lady had shown some interest in me, and ran for the hills when I told her I live with anxiety and that I’m not currently working.

The realization I came to was that all of that non-sense about “what makes a man” had gotten into my head, and I was left feeling inadequate and emasculated. The fact that I’m working on getting myself healthy instead of punching a punch clock is something I am perfectly OK with. Hell, for me, it’s pretty much normal. I can live fairly lean, and be reasonably happy, on not a whole lot. I have a house. I have food. I have an old rusty truck that gets me around. I have my faithful mutt and enough support. I can be happy with that. She couldn’t. She bought into the consumer-driven idea of “manhood.”

After I realized that, I decided to look at the self-perceived emasculation that has given me so much anguish and depression in the past. I wanted to get a better picture of what people think makes a “man.” So, I conducted a very informal and completely unscientific poll of real people I actually know, asking them, “What makes someone ‘manly’?” Some of the answers were surprising, some less so.

First, the not-as-good news:

#1. Confidence: It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when your body is on hyper fight-or-flight mode, your confidence can get shaken. If anyone has figured out how to be confident during an anxiety or panic attack, let me know how you do it. I would think it’s pretty much an impossibility, simply due to the hormones and chemicals your body is pumping out at levels even actual life-or-death experiences can’t evoke.

It’s OK, though. This is not the time to worry about appearing confident. To do so would really only make things much worse. What you can do, however, is be confident in your ability to handle it. For me, even though I’m going through the hell that is an anxiety attack, there’s part of me that knows what it is, knows I’ve been through them before, and knows I will be OK. Ninety-nine percent of me may be freaking out, but there’s always that one percent there to remind me I know what’s going on, and I know I’ll be alright.

I still need to treat myself gently, and I still need to work my way back to “normal” slowly, but I also know I will be OK. That may not look like confidence to the casual on-looker, but in my opinion, it’s the definition of true confidence. There aren’t many things in life that will rattle your cage like an anxiety attack, so if you can deal with having those, you’re certified tough.

#2. Dependability: Yeah, this can be a tough one. Panic and anxiety attacks usually don’t schedule themselves ahead of time, and have a way of coming at inconvenient times. My suggestion is to use honesty. Instead of saying you can’t make your appointment because your car has a flat tire, just tell them you are having a panic attack. Some people will be very empathetic and understanding, some won’t. You don’t get to control their reaction, sadly, but to those who really matter, your honesty and trust makes you dependable in an even deeper, more meaningful way. With those less sympathetic, don’t take it personally. That’s their issue, not yours, no matter what they may say.

#3. The Provider: If you mean strictly in terms on money, yeah, anxiety can be hell on your checkbook. Sadly, this is a widely expected cultural norm. It shouldn’t be, but it is the reality we have to face. If your anxiety is so severe you’ve practically become a shut-in, the simple fact is your income is going to suffer. I’ve found the best I can do is the best I can do, and I have to be OK with that. I work when I’m able, and that’s the best I can do for now.  Gold diggers can just keep moving on (which is fine by me).

The good news is that not all women take only your paycheck into consideration when evaluating your Provider status, and some of the factors they bring in might surprise you. There will be more on that later, but things that cost $0, like being supportive, being respectful, listening, kindness, etc., can make up for a lot.

#4. The Protector: This one is actually one of anxiety issues rare silver linings, at least in my experience. I should mention that one of my favorite hobbies is Krav Maga (a martial art that makes MMA fights look like kids with giant inflatable boxing gloves on by comparison). I go to classes whenever my finances and anxiety allow. It’s a very odd thing for someone with social anxiety to really enjoy, at least on the surface, but I find it relieves the anxiety better than any other single thing I do.

That said, I’ve been through hundreds of full-blown panic attacks. I have more practice keeping a level head under massive adrenaline than any 10 “normal” people, and so do you. This is huge advantage, and you can maximize it by picking up some basic skills for emergency situations like knowing some basic first-aid and some martial arts.

Most men only experience a flight-or-flight type response a handful of times in an entire life. They are stuck like deer in headlights. You, on the other hand, you’ve ridden that bull so often you’re on a first name basis with it, and you know how to ride it.

In Krav Maga class, we do some drills that are specifically designed to simulate a panicked or disoriented situation. For most people, simply having the instructor flick the lights on and off is enough. For me, these drills are easy as pie. The slight increase in adrenaline is barely a drop in the bucket.

Bottom line, if you’re living with anxiety issues, you’re already a warrior. You know how to get back up when you’re down, even when you’re not sure you want to. That is a rare skill, and one you can use to your advantage.

Like I said, learn what to do in any likely emergencies, and you’re just a hero in waiting. What’s the worst that can happen? You panic? You’ve done that before, and you know how to handle it.

#5. The Productive Member of Society: This one can be tricky, depending on severity of your symptoms. However, there’s always something you can do to leave the world better than you found it.

Try picking a random Facebook friend every day, and paying them a sincere compliment with no expectation of it being returned. Just a compliment. Is it saving whales? No. But you’ll make one friend’s day a little better. It’s not nothing…

Try writing articles in the hopes someone relates to an issue you’ve faced. You can change a life without putting on your pants.

Point being, “productive member of society” is not a reference to economic production. It means you’re adding something to society, and that can come in many forms. Any of which will also help with your confidence. Men tend to “do.” It’s in our nature. Just because you may not be able to do as much as you normally could, doesn’t mean you can’t do what you can and be perfectly proud of that.

Now for the good news. Most of the women polled didn’t even mention the things listed above. Most of what was listed wasn’t what you’d necessarily think of when you hear the word “man.”

At #1 is respect. I think Tina Turner has that topic covered.

The others are, in my opinion, just being a decent human. Honestly, loyalty, kindness, attentive listening (sorry guys, they can tell when you’re faking paying attention better than you can tell they’re faking an orgasm), communication, open minded, nurturing/sensitive side, creativity, sense of humor and lastly, commitment (although I think they meant in the sense not involving marriage, I can’t promise that).

The more frequent response I got back regarding this is really very simple, but goes against all “man” instinct. That was simply this: listen and empathize. I know as a man, the knee-jerk response when you hear someone you care for is not happy is to fix it. Do not do that. Listen to what they say, use some imagination or your own past experience, and vocally sympathize with her. Sometimes “I understand” is all you need to do or say.

In short, make an effort to treat people around you better than you have to. It builds relationships, it eases the anxiety, creates a stronger support network for when you do need it, makes you happier and makes the world a better place.

If making the world a better place doesn’t make you a “man,” nothing will. Not even that six-figure job, fancy car and enormous TV. However, if you recover from the anxiety, and end up with all the “stuff” society tells us we should crave, you’ll keep the inner confidence of knowing you do your best to make the world a better place. That confidence will outshine any fancy new car, and it will show.

So, guys, take it easy on yourselves. Anxiety makes you no less manly, and if you use the opportunity, can be the catalyst that makes you into an even better man than your ever were before. Anxiety and panic issues are tough enough on their own. We don’t need to add guilt and shame over things we can’’t control to the mix, too. So be gentle, do the best you can and sleep happy at night knowing you did what you could. Courage in the face of adversity is a much better measure of a man than a bank account, anyway.

For most of my life, I have been a terrible advocate for myself. Some of that was me not realizing I needed to say something (not knowing a whole situation, so I felt like I couldn’t speak up); some of it was out of laziness; some of it was because I just really did not know how. In college, it took me over a month to break up with someone who told me they weren’t sure they wanted to be together, but then didn’t officially end things. It took me three years at work to feel like I wasn’t at the mercy of my boss’ every whim and could actually push back a little.

I still have trouble, but I’ve noticed a big shift: recently, my default has been to advocate for myself in stead of to say f*ck it, when it used to be very decidedly the other way around.

I credit anxiety for this.

This is one of those times when, as sh*tty as the anxiety can be, it can do amazing things, too. If I hadn’t gone through this experience, I would still be stuck feeling like I should speak up but not wanting to rock the boat. (In my brain, whenever I thought about speaking up, I kept hearing Nicely-Nicely from “Guys and Dolls” telling me to “sit down, you’re rocking the boat.”) Anxiety has forced me to speak up in my personal relationships because that’s the only way things will get better. Even though cognitively I knew that saying something is better — saying nothing means nothing changes — I had a really hard time putting that into practice. Anxiety has forced me to start acting on that impulse to say something instead of just letting it go, and I’ve gotta say, there have really only been good results.

The heart of this, though, is what the advocacy indicates. I’ve always been pretty assertive about my independence, but my Midwestern training to always be considerate of others has kept me quiet a lot more times than I should have been. As most people with anxiety can tell you, it’s easy to think about that time in 10th grade when you should have spoken up for yourself. People with anxiety tend to have long memories, and it’s always about what we could have done differently. Sometimes this is great because it leads us to be reflective about our own actions and maybe start to change something. Sometimes this is hard because we acquiesce for fear of upsetting someone and don’t always hold others responsible for their behavior.

But the instinct to advocate for myself shows me that, now, I value more than my independence: my emotional well-being matters, too. I’ve always been pretty confident, but I’m learning now that mental and emotional health are about more than that. It’s important to work to maintain them, as I’ve been doing, and part of that work is saying something when I need help or something feels off. If I don’t, I know from experience that I’ll be wishing I had and ruminating about it for a long time. And I don’t particularly want to live like that any more.

This is not to say that advocating is easy. I still need time to process and think about what I want to say and how I want to say it, and sometimes that can take a while. And I still get a little anxious right before I say something. And sometimes I end up crying even though I’m not that upset, that’s just how my body reacts.

I still have trouble with it, but I’m glad that I want to, and that I actually do.

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From the time I can remember, I’ve always known deep down I was different. I had fears that didn’t cross most children’s minds. This made me different, but it didn’t take away from my childhood. I was free and I did as I pleased. Captain of the soccer team, a dancer, a honor student, leader and an art club member. I was different, but being different never held me back.

As I started to grow, I don’t know how I went from being this free girl to the person I became. I went from being a leader to not playing the game. I went from being at dance practice three times a week to none at all. I went from an honor student to barely reaching B’s. I was no longer this free girl who had the drive to reach her full potential.

I wanted that girl back so badly I spent most days walking backward though my life. I wanted people to see me how I used to be. The medals in my room always proving I used to be a winner. When you give in from what’s pulling you down, you start to drown. Everyone around me seemed to be living. It felt like I was standing still as laughter was all around me. You start to break the surface, but you get dragged back underneath.

People are always going to judge, because we’re human. We all do it, so maybe the world should stop saying we don’t. We are judged every day based on our clothes, our jobs, our cars and our families. I feel judged every day because I’m different. I’m different because I live with anxiety.

Normal tasks are hard to complete. Hell, even getting out of bed some days is hard. I think most people who live with anxiety will agree they wish people saw them at their good points in life. No one wants to be remembered by their dark days. It’s not possible to walk backward through life. I learned this the hard way, after spending some time trying.

Instead of searching for the person I was before my anxiety took control, I needed to find the things that made me happy. I found a soccer team, started to dance with school, found leadership opportunities and accepted the fact I was different. I’ve known I was different for the longest time, but I let that get to me.

There are days when I wish people knew me before my anxiety did. I struggle to get through the day. I’m the most outgoing person, but some days I don’t want to be. I would love if people only could see me when I was anxiety free. It would be nice if people only saw the good in me.

Maybe I want others to have met me before my anxiety. If someone can’t accept me for who I am at my worst, then they don’t deserve to see me at my best. There are times in life where you lose yourself. You don’t realize it, but years later you do. I didn’t realize how much I changed from middle school to high school. Now that I’m in college, I realize I may have changed. This change may be because of my anxiety.

I have changed, but this change, which I thought was so bad, made me understand some of the biggest lessons in life. One day can change your life forever. Your problems may seem huge, but someone is going through something bigger. Your family is your support system. If you lost friends because of your illness, then they’re not your friends.

Life isn’t fair, but we’re all going through it. You may not be able to find who you were 10 years ago, but that’s OK. We all change. Some of us like who we become, and some of us don’t. The best thing about this life is your free will. If you don’t like your direction, then you can change it. Do you want to know why? Because you’re not a tree. You’re not stuck to one place. It doesn’t matter how many physical trophies or medals you collect. It’s all about the moments in your life when you feel like the winner. Be brave and accept the fact that you can always change.

I’ve grown up with anxiety. I’ve always had it, and I may continue to have it. Four years ago, I had my first real anxiety attack. I didn’t know what was happening and how to stop it. I still remember what I was wearing, where I was and what happened on that day. Because that was the day that everything changed for me.

From that day on, I had at least one anxiety attack per month, if not more. My teachers didn’t understand at first, but eventually they realized if I got up and left, I was most likely in the nurse’s office. I got to know my nurse, and she understood how to help me when I was down. But besides our nurse, no one really knew how to help me. So I decided to create this list for all my family and friends and others so they can help me and possibly their other loved ones.

1. Let me know I am safe.

When I have an anxiety attack, my body goes into fight-or-flight mode because it thinks I am unsafe. So letting me know over and over again that I am safe really does help.

2. Give me my space while still being there for me.

Even if you are just sitting in the room with me, it really does help. Sometimes when I’m alone, it takes a significantly longer time to calm down.

3. Distract me.

Although this may seem hard because I will seem extremely distraught, please distract me. If I am not distracted, I will not be able to come out of my attack. You can talk to me about anything in the world and it will help me, no matter how boring it may seem.

4. Don’t ask me the reason for my anxiety attack.

A majority of the time, my anxiety attack is triggered by something I don’t even know. I may not have or know a specific reason for the anxiety attack.

5. Don’t tell me I have nothing to worry about.

Hearing someone tell me I have nothing to worry about makes me feel even worse about having an anxiety attack.

6. Give me time.

It may take me anywhere from five minutes to an hour to get over my anxiety attack. This may see extreme to you, but depending on the severity of my attack, I may need a lot of time.

7. Tell me you love me. 

This is by far the most important part. When I have an anxiety attack, I feel like crap. Telling me you love me begins the process of me getting better.

Although these may not work for everyone, I think some of these things can be used in every situation. Always help someone in any way you can, especially if they’re in a situation where they need you.

Having anxiety is hard, and most who struggle may not come to you when they need you because they are embarrassed or afraid you will not know how to react. If you know someone with anxiety or any other mental illness or chronic illness, reach out. Knowing they have someone to go to in a time of need can mean the world to that person.

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I’ve written before about my love/hate relationship with anxiety. I love that it keeps me organized and conscientious of others. I love that it has heightened my sense of empathy. I hate that it makes me feel nauseous. I hate that I can’t always enjoy important moments. I hate that it makes simple things really difficult.

My biggest fear when I started to deal with this was: What’s going to happen in the future? Am I going to be able to walk down the aisle without having a panic attack? What about when I have a kid? Am I going to be able to handle parenting when I’m crying and feeling nauseous and like I’m not myself?

Those thoughts scared me a lot because I just wanted the anxiety to go away. I didn’t want to have to deal with it anymore. My main goal was to figure out how to get rid of it once and for all. I wanted to get back to life without anyone knowing. Anxiety felt like a black hole had taken up residence in my chest. It was only a matter of time before it turned me into someone unrecognizable. (Or until Matthew McConaughey tried to use it to send a message to his daughter.)

While this attitude gave me the motivation to start therapy and read as much about anxiety as possible, this is not a healthy way to approach it. Wanting to eradicate anxiety is a form of resistance. It leads to more tension and more anxiety. It’s the classic fear of fear. I was so worried about having an attack in specific situations that I didn’t realize I was keeping myself on alert in every situation. Thus, I was making things worse for myself.

My therapist asked me last week what my ultimate goal would be in terms of my anxiety. She said, “What does the best possible outcome look like?” Well, that’s easy. It’s completely gone. I don’t want to approach it with that attitude because it will make me feel like I’ve failed every time my anxiety shows up. I told her what I really want is to have a set strategy in place. This way when I feel it start to get bad, I will know exactly what to do.

I want to approach this like I’m going to live with it all my life because I probably am, one way or another. Knowing that it’s not going away actually helps me cultivate the accepting attitude that’s so important in anxiety and panic management. Assuming I’ve got another 60 or so years of this ahead of me, helps me to make room for it. Maybe what’s most important is it normalizes it. I want to get to the point where, when anxiety pops up, I’m just like, “Oh, it’s you,” and go back to whatever I was doing.

I’m definitely closer to this than I was a year ago. One of the things that’s been really helpful has been learning how to depersonalize the anxiety. This is helpful in trying to be an outside observer. It allows me to view anxiety as something that is happening to me versus a character flaw. While my reaction used to be, “Oh my god, What the f*ck is going on?” — it’s now more something like, “Oh, well this is annoying but I’m pretty sure I’ve got this.” Honestly, I’m pretty darn proud of that.

It’s been a long time since I was crying uncontrollably and feeling like I was going to puke at any second. These days it’s mostly some nausea (sniffing peppermint oil is an amazing help for that by the way), a rapid heartbeat and some tightness in the chest. If I can’t get to a quiet place, then it can escalate. Usually, I can make that happen or at least stand in the back of my classroom and breathe for a minute or two while my students work.

Perhaps, I need one more really big anxiety-producing experience, akin to meeting my boyfriend’s parents or traveling somewhere I’ve never been. This way I can really see where I am. I’m sure this will happen in due time. I feel good most days though, and I’m really proud of that. I’m almost where I want to be. It feels really good not to have that black hole hanging out in my chest anymore. (But if Matthew McConaughey wanted to hang out there, then I’d be OK with that.)

Image via Thinkstock.

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