From Stress to Strength: A Practical Approach to Improving Men's Mental Health

From Stress to Strength: A Practical Approach to Improving Men's Mental Health

Mental health pressures are faced by everyone. This article shares a personal experience of becoming a dad in a foreign country, plus thoughts on the challenges I frequently see men encounter in my therapy practice.

Access your own Emotional Health Checklist and Assessment at the end.

 I wanted to talk about it. Damn it. I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell. I wanted to shout about it. But all I could do was whisper, I'm fine.' Anon.

The Mask of Masculinity: Why Many Men Suffer in Silence

Many men silently struggle with mental health. They face a constant battle against worries and doubts, often struggling to express these feelings.

I've learned that, deep down, a pervasive sense exists among many men - that, beyond their contributions to others, they don't feel cared for in a way that feels meaningful.

This vulnerability - and a fear of being exposed - loom large.

Revealing to others what's hidden within can lead to misunderstandings. This perceived risk may drive many men to suppress their emotions, choosing stoicism as a defence.

After all, isn't staying self-contained what strong men are supposed to do?

Men commonly adhere to rules forged in the playgrounds of their youth:

Don't cry. Stop complaining and get on with it.

Although these maxims are harmful, they often act as guidelines. Men follow them to feel a sense of belonging and direction.

Unfortunately, these crude life instructions send many down the path of isolation, leading to a lonely existence.

Personal Experience: Adjusting to Parenthood and Relocation

Men's Mental Health: A Personal Journey

In 2014, my wife and I traded the familiar chaos of London for a life in Berlin, Germany.

It seemed like a great idea. Head somewhere novel and try something new -embrace a less relentless routine away from life in London.

The Impact of Parenthood: A Reality Check

In 2015, my son was born. This event disrupted my plans for newfound freedom. It highlighted my long-ignored shortcomings.

After his traumatic birth on Saturday night, I was back at work by Monday morning. The initial joy of fatherhood faded quickly, leading to suffering.

Life as a teacher and psychotherapist has taught me much about looking after others. But I'd neglected to take care of myself.

As a result, valued friendships had slipped away and maintaining appearances was my routine performance.

I spent little, if any, time experiencing 'me.' But I thought I was doing okay as long as I looked okay.

But okay is a precarious state to maintain. It's a tightrope balance, vulnerable to the slightest gust of wind.

Fatherhood was unfamiliar to me. I had no example to follow, as my own father was absent.

My wife had been a constant source of stability. Yet she seemed to drift away as our son's arrival shifted the fulcrum of our lives.

Set against our new life in Berlin, I was without friends, support and stability. In essence, I felt like a child on the doorstep of fatherhood.

Now and again, my wife would take my hand or hold me in her arms, and the noise would dampen down for a moment.

Brief moments of hope and clarity emerged. But they quickly faded whenever my son needed urgent attention

I was alone and confused. Locked in a small, dark room inside my head. I also felt guilty that this tiny, helpless life rendered me so displaced.

Thankfully, that was a few years ago now.

And although I wouldn't wish to repeat the experience, I'm grateful for the hard-earned lessons.

Namely, to be receptive to life's alarm bells when they ring, to hear the message and stop going it alone.

After sharing my own journey, it's clear that the challenges I faced aren't unique to me.

Why Do Men Struggle with Stress? Cultural Narratives and Men's Mental Health

Cultural Norms and Men's Mental Health

In a world that requires men to "man up" and power through, many wrestle with stress, a sense of isolation and without the tools to manage.

A combination of societal expectations and personal beliefs often hinders men from seeking emotional support - a reluctance contributing to preventable stress and suffering.

Of course, individuals of any gender experience stress. Moreover, how stress is handled varies significantly by individual and is not solely determined by gender.

Nevertheless, here are a few examples of stressors I've observed affecting an increasing (and sometimes disproportionate) number of men. 

Five Key Stressors Affecting Men's Mental Health

  1. Performance at Work: Men may face significant stress related to job performance and financial provision, partly due to traditional societal norms often positioning them as their families' primary earners or providers. This expectation can create substantial pressure and stress, particularly during economic instability or job insecurity.
  2. Emotional Expression: Many societies and cultures encourage men to be stoic, suppressing their emotions or discouraging them from expressing their feelings. As a result, men may associate vulnerability with weakness, so fail to seek support as a preventative measure. This leads to emotional stress, loneliness, and difficulty maintaining relationships.
  3. Physical Health and Body Image: Though body image is often considered a stressor more common among women, men confront increasing pressures and stressors related to physical appearance, fitness, and strength. Media portrayals of the 'ideal' male body can worsen self-esteem and body image issues. Men may feel unworthy if they don't meet these standards.t's like needing to step back from a pool to learn how to swim. But what if you're already drowning?s
  4. Masculinity and Identity: Societal expectations about being a 'real man' induce stress, especially for those who feel they fail to meet these standards. This can include pressure to be dominant, to engage in risk-taking behaviours, or to avoid appearing 'weak.'
  5. Fatherhood and Parenting: Men often face stress related to their father roles, particularly balancing work and family responsibilities or dealing with societal expectations of being a 'good' father. In the past, parenting roles were more easily defined. For good or bad, these were generally straightforward to understand and less complex to fulfil.

A Critical Turning Point

Looking back, I understand my new-dad self was carrying an emotional deficit.

There was a simple mismatch between the demands faced and my resources to meet those demands.

As a result, stress levels were high, and the capacity for calm, clear-eyed perspective was low.

Emotional distress—stemming from factors like lack of community, language barriers, and relationship strains—led to negative thought patterns ('I'm trapped forever'. 'Everything's gone wrong'. ).

These thoughts then influenced my behaviour (bad habits, frustrated outbursts, etc. ), the outcomes of which (e.g. misunderstandings with my wife) exacerbated my upset.

Cycle of Distress

Emotional distress represents a merry-go-round of reactions, and once you’re on the ride, it’s hard to know how to get off.

High stress leaves little bandwidth to perceive events with a clear or helpful perspective.

It's like needing to step back from the deep end to learn how to swim, yet find that you're already drowning.

The fact that I, despite my professional background in mental health, struggled emotionally suggests that many others likely face similar challenges.

So, how did events begin to improve?

Turning Point: Steps to Emotional Recovery

The first step involved taking stock of life with a simple framework to consider my emotional needs (I've posted a link to the framework at the end).

Similar to a healthy, balanced diet made up of various nutrients, emotional health consists of various emotional nutrients.

For instance, it's necessary to give and receive meaningful attention, have access to a community, and receive sufficient time and intimacy from a close friend or partner.

The checklist highlighted a range of deficits. And similar to a poor diet not supporting the body, a shortage of emotional nutrition will lead to distress.

I found this a wake-up call.

Of course, my progress wasn't all plain sailing. Yet, taking a rational look at the individual components of emotional well-being offered a clear, analytical framework for understanding emotional health.

This calmed me down enough to start making practical changes; to stop going it alone, be honest, and become active in creating connections with other people.

Supporting Yourself and the Men in Your Life: A Checklist and Assessment for Download

Supporting Men's Mental Health

How can we understand emotional health?

Consider a seed: it needs air, water, sunlight, and soil nutrients to grow. Given adequate nourishment, it evolves into a healthy plant or tree.

Humans are no exception.

While our needs are more complex, the core idea remains the same—we need various forms of nourishment for survival and well-being.

We're all aware of our basic physical needs: food, water, warmth, and shelter. Meeting these needs is essential for survival.

However, mere survival isn't the whole picture.

Emotional well-being also plays a crucial role. A balanced emotional state—free from debilitating fear and worry—is just as vital.

This principle is applicable regardless of cultural background.

Attending to both physical and emotional needs lays the foundation for a stable, fulfilling life.

If you’d like to assess your emotional health, you can access a checklist and assessment below.

The checklist will provide a clear overview of your needs along with a view of the broader, nuanced landscape of your emotional health.

The check-up will:

  • Inform you about your emotional needs
  • Support you to reflect upon areas of your life
  • Enable you to assess your current well-being
  • Help you to identify any existing gaps

The checklist is one of the first assessments I carry out with my 1:1 therapy clients.

Join the Anxiety Master community below for FREE immediate access.

This post is for subscribers only

Already have an account? Sign in.