By Erin Webb, LAC
From health and financial concerns to changes in how people live their everyday lives, the past 18 months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have been fraught with uncertainty.
And while the pandemic had an effect on everyone, men in particular faced certain challenges that resulted in increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
In fact, according to a national survey by the Cleveland Clinic last year, 77 percent of men reported that their stress level increased because of COVID-19, and three in five felt that the pandemic had a greater negative impact on their mental health than the 2008 recession.
For men living with past trauma, the COVID-19 pandemic may have taken an even greater toll, as suppressed emotions tend to resurface during times of change and stress.
Though the stigma of mental health conditions and treatment may be improving, men still have trouble asking others for help.
Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health provides men a safe and supportive space to explore their concerns, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and connect with peers to help them realize that they are not alone.
Stress is the body’s adaption to new and intense situations. It is a normal part of life and something that everyone experiences from time to time.
When you feel stress, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which tell the body to be ready for immediate action. This is known as the fight or flight response.
When this happens, your heart beats faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, your breath quickens, and your senses become sharper.
Stress and the fight or flight response serve to improve survival. However, too much stress can interfere with your job, family life, and physical health.
Left unmanaged, chronic stress can lead to clinical anxiety and depression that require help from a mental health professional.
Men Handle Stress Differently
For most people, stress is triggered when something unexpected happens in their lives or when they are facing big challenges that provoke fear and worry.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one example.
Another example is the fast pace of changes in today’s world. Technological advancements and changing societal norms, for instance, can create stressful situations in areas where men once felt comfortable.
The impact of these changes can make some men especially prone to stress because they find it difficult to discuss their feelings. Perhaps they were raised in a family where talking about feelings was discouraged, or their sense of self makes it difficult to ask for help or to acknowledge when they feel as if life just isn’t going their way.
While many men feel comfortable asking for help with physical pain or discomfort, they find that managing feelings of vulnerability, discussing emotions, and self-care — such as addressing their need for emotional support — continue to remain a challenge.
Consider that 66 percent of men said they rarely talked about the impact COVID-19 has had on their mental health, according to the Cleveland Clinic survey.
Moreover, men with mental illnesses are less likely to seek care than women, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
As a way of managing stress and feeling supported and connected, most individuals seek out a friend or family member to talk through their fears and concerns. Some men, though, find they don’t have that type of support, so they cope in other ways to achieve those same feelings.
But by not opening up and discussing their feelings, men can experience more isolation as time goes on, and, as a result, even more stress, anxiety, and depression.
This can be further complicated by the dominant role that social media plays in people’s lives. While technology can serve to bring people together, it can also sow division and cause people to lose their sense of belonging, leading to even deeper feelings of loneliness and isolation.
When to Seek Help
Many men who have trouble coping with stress simply aren’t sure how to adapt to the changes happening around them or how to meet expectations of a changing world.
Often, they’re not sure how to ask for help, or where to start.
Men who are struggling with stress should seek professional support if:
• The thought of resuming activities they once enjoyed results in dread or nervousness and keeps them from reengaging.
• Fear or anxiety that their emotional state will be “exposed” prevents them from resuming prior activities.
It is also important to note that symptoms of depression may look different for men than women. Men are more likely to report fatigue, irritability, and loss of interest in work or hobbies rather than feelings of sadness and worthlessness. More than 6 million men suffer from depression each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Through group therapy and other services, Princeton House Behavioral Health offers men an opportunity to connect with peers who are facing similar struggles. These connections enable men to relax and open up about their feelings so they can heal.
Therapy also helps participants regulate their emotions and develop healthy skills to cope with any current stressors as well as past traumas.
By better understanding what causes stress, developing reasonable expectations, accepting limitations and learning how to express emotions in a healthy way, men can become better equipped to face stressful situations in the future and recognize they don’t have to pretend that everything is OK all of the time.
For more information about Princeton House’s specialized services for men, visit PrincetonHouse.org/men or call 1-888-437-1610.
Erin Webb is a licensed associate counselor and primary therapist at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health’s Moorestown outpatient site.