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How to Redefine Masculinity as a Man Living With Anxiety

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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.

Originally published: August 22, 2016
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