Most people don’t know that depression can often look very different between men and women. The typical picture that comes to mind of someone who’s depressed is often a tearful, sad, depressed person who stays in bed all day, doesn’t shower or take care of themselves, or withdraws from all social interactions. But this often isn’t the case, especially among men.
One key distinction in how men with depression often express themselves is through anger or irritability.
So why are men often labeled with anger management issues? Are they just depressed?
The short answer- no. But let’s unpack this a little bit. For starters, men are taught from a young age that they aren’t allowed to feel bad. They aren’t allowed to cry or feel hurt and aren’t allowed to share their pain with others. They also aren’t taught how to handle their unpleasant emotions; only that they need to “suck it up” or “stop crying”. So what are men supposed to do with all those natural, normal unpleasant emotions when they come up? As they are often told over and over again the response is to “toughen up” or “be a man” sometimes followed by a physical push as if to push the sadness or hurt or tears out of them and will result in the pain being replaced with anger.
This can be seen in boys around the country who are acting out in classrooms, getting into fights on the playground or throwing tantrums at home. Of course, this generalization doesn’t apply to every man or boy out there, but if you’re a man reading this right now my guess is you have at least one experience in your history that resembles this exchange.
Depression is often underdiagnosed in men, for several reasons.
One reason being that since men don’t always fit the stereotypical picture of depression, they don’t recognize it in themselves as something they may need to get help for in the first place. The second reason being the stigma attached to getting help for men, which is often viewed as a sign of weakness. As a result, men don’t seek help such as therapy or even sharing with a supportive friend as often as women do.
To perhaps oversimplify things for the sake of clarity- men get taught that they aren’t allowed to feel sad or depressed or cry the way women do, so as a result they learn how bottle up their emotions or channel them into anger.
Men have largely become pigeonholed by the standards of our (American) society, as repressed, angry, emotionally withdrawn, explosive and misunderstood guys with no proper outlet. The problem with repressed emotions is that they don’t just disappear because you’ve learned over the years how to not deal with them. All emotions still need to be expressed somehow, and when we don’t have the language or the tools to work through and express them in a healthy way, they tend to store up inside of us like a pressure cooker. Eventually one of two things will happen if you don’t let out some air … it’ll burst, or it’ll break, or maybe even both.
But what does all this have to do with pain? Well to be clear, I mean physical pain not emotional pain (although that’s definitely in the mix as well).
So let’s go back to the pressure cooker on the verge of breaking due to lack of expressed emotions. Essentially when our emotions aren’t let out, we end up repressing them, which then leaves our body forced to absorb the ‘pressure’ in some way, and the result of that often leads to some form of physical pain from the energy build up in the body.
Here’s one to think about it…
Let’s equate your internal pressure cooker to the radiator in your car. Once that radiator overheats and gets boiling hot, if you try to take the cap off to relieve the pressure you’re going to end up in a shower of hot lime green coolant as it sprays all over the place.
But let’s say the temperature gauge in your car isn’t working right (that’s like your emotional self-awareness). Now your radiator starts overheating while you keep driving on your merry way essentially ignoring or unaware of the problem, and all of a sudden, BAM! The entire thing breaks down, your car starts smoking and you end up broke down on the side of the road, pissed off and waiting for a tow truck.
There’s nothing quite as frustrating as a car that keeps breaking down on you. Some people can drive around with a broke down car for years, always struggling with the pain of something going out. Maybe one month it’s the radiator, another month it’s the tires, later it’s the AC. All the while your ‘check engine’ light has been on without you realizing it until one day the whole engine goes and your car is literally dead… or wait, is that you???
Don’t wait for the engine or your heart or your back or your radiator to go out on you before you end up saying F-it and go out and just get the damn new car.
I have worked with countless men who for the majority of their lives have never expressed the painful emotions they feel, because they were told in some way that they can’t. Many of these men have also experienced some type of trauma, both big and small. And a large majority of them have some sort of ongoing physical pain or a need to inflict pain on their bodies in an effort to cope.
I’ve seen everything from back pain, to leg pain, to arm pain, to neck pain, to shoulder pain. And harmful behaviors such as excessive drinking, using drugs, constantly getting into physical fights, excessively working out to the point of exhaustion, to some more direct and threatening means of physically hurting oneself by cutting, burning, or sometimes worse.
While the extreme cases are not as common of an occurrence, the chances are pretty high that you or someone you know may experience some of the other forms of pain I mentioned at some point in your life.
I want to get one thing clear though, which is that I am in no way saying that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between each of the things listed and depression. People can experience physical pain or engage in risky behaviors for a variety of reasons. However, if you are a man who experiences any of these things, or know someone in your life who does, it’s important to ask yourself…. What might be going on under the hood, that I may not want to express or deal with or feel?
Sometimes it’s hard for men to answer this question because they are so used to ignoring the real issue. And as the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. But if you notice your behavior or body giving you any of these clues, therapy can be one place to explore them a little further and try to understand where it’s coming from. And ultimately resolve the issue and get to a place of feeling healthy, happy, and connected, not just to yourself but those around you too.