Why the Phrase “Toughen Up” is Damaging Men’s Health

by | Jun 13, 2018 | Anxiety, Depression, Men's Health

Chris Gilbert, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW

12 June 2018

When it comes to mental health, men have it tough. And the age-old hyper-masculine remedy, to simply “toughen up” or “man up” might be the worst thing for us.

The stereotypical image of the macho, stoic male is coming back to bite us, and the consequences couldn’t be worse.

Men & Mental health: how are we doing?

The stats show us that for Australian men, one in five will experience anxiety in their lifetime and one in eight men will experience depression. And whilst those numbers are higher for women, the amount of men actually seeking help for their mental health issues is half that of women. And maybe you could be mistaken, thinking that men are simply “toughing it out”, putting their head down and getting through it.

Well… they’re not.

“It’s important to get more men talking about how they’re feeling, with suicide being the leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 44” (Dr. Paul Jelfs; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015). Approximately six Australians die by suicide every year, and the overwhelming majority are men. It’s been called the “silent crisis”. Men are taking to the graves the pain they’ve bottled up inside.

That traditional concept of the stoic, emotionally distant man is rife with avoidance of things that are uncomfortable. We avoid what we fear. When it comes to “big, scary emotions” and concepts of vulnerability and intimacy, men are all too often sent packing. Like the big elephant, scared-stiff by the little mouse. The epitome of manliness is supposed to be strength and power, but by avoiding our emotions we’ve embraced weakness and fear.

I always tell my clients “It’s crazy. We teach our kids algebra, but we don’t bother to teach them how to deal with difficult emotions”. How were we supposed to know how to deal with death, marital breakdowns, defiant kids, crippling debt, loss of a job, disability, bullying etc.?

It’s completely understandable that these prolonged pressures would lead to mental-overload; depression, anxiety, substance abuse, addiction. We do our best with the tools we have lying around. But if what we’re doing isn’t making us better (or is making us worse), surely, it’s time to try something new.

We owe it to our families, our children and to ourselves to learn how to cope better. It’s affecting us all, but we don’t have to let it. Let’s bring these issues out of the shadows.

what are we up against

The most common mental health issues affecting men are anxiety and depression. Both conditions are a cluster of multiple experiences involving your body, your emotions, your thoughts and your behaviours. There’s actually quite a big overlap between the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

You might be surprised by just how commonplace or “normal” some of these symptoms actually are. Let’s take a look at each in turn: 

signs of anxiety

Here are the core symptoms for general anxiety:

  • Chronic worrying (about work, finances, school, relationships, little everyday things, things that are out of your control, perfectionism)
  • Difficulty controlling your worries (spiraling, particularly at night)
  • Restlessness, being keyed up or always on edge
  • Easily fatigued
  • Increased irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension (neck, shoulders, back, clenching/grinding your teeth, headaches)
  • Sleep disturbance (worries keeping you up at night or having a restless night of sleep)

Do you recognize any of these symptoms?

If you’re noticing most of these symptoms, they’ve been hanging around for more than 6 months and they’re beginning to cause significant distress or interference in your everyday life, then it might be time to seek help.

A psychologist will help you to recognize the unhelpful habits (thinking patterns and behaviours) that have got you stuck in this treadmill of anxiety and will teach you the skills needed to get back on track.

Signs of depression

Here are the core symptoms:

  • Depressed mood almost everyday (feeling perpetually flat, down or sad)
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in usual activities
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Eating more or less than usual / recent weight gain or weight loss
  • Moving a lot slower or more agitated than usual
  • Fatigue / loss of energy
  • Feelings worthless, hopeless or experiencing excessive guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation

Do you recognize any of these symptoms? If you’re noticing at least half of these symptoms, they’ve been hanging around almost everyday for at least two weeks and they’re beginning to cause significant distress or interference in your everyday life, then it might be time to seek help.

A psychologist will help you to recognize the unhelpful habits (thinking patterns and behaviours) that have left you stuck in this rut and will teach you the skills needed to get out – and stay out!

How are you travelling?

Did any of those traits stand out to you? Are you noticing their effect on your life? Are they starting to get a bit out of control?

If there’s something wrong, there’s no point lying to yourself. No point pretending that everything’s ok when it’s not. Be honest with yourself. You can’t be expected to have it all together, all the time.

As men, it’s time to give-up our reluctance to stop and ask for directions. If we’re lost, it’s time to ask for help.

An assessment with a professional is the first stop to getting back on track. A psychologist will find out what’s going on and recommend the path that works best for you. They’ll recommend paths that are tried and true, that have allowed countless others in the exact same position as you to recover. They’ll work with your goals to empower and equip you with all the tools you need.

Chris gilbert

Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW

Chris has a particular interest in supporting individuals of all ages who are struggling with anxiety and depressive disorders. He creates a motivating and light hearted environment within which clients can develop the skills necessary for change. When treating young people Chris works together with their families to empower everyone involved with the skills needed to improve their lives.