During these trying times, two factors are essential to maintaining a man’s mental well-being: getting and giving help.
Both are challenges. Despite the benefits of getting and giving support on their physical and mental health, men are hamstrung by outdated stereotypes and social hesitancies.
When ignored, conditions like depression can have devastating consequences. Alternatively, the application of some basic coping skills, whether coupled with professional help or not, offer a pathway to a healthy lifestyle and the happiness we all seek, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has created one of the most difficult periods in our lives.
Let’s start with help-getting. Men are programmed to be prompted when things are not right or there is a medical problem. Examples are well-known: the infamous check-engine light in our cars and the weekly injury report filed by NFL coaches – signals intended to generate action and satisfy a man’s need for the most minute details of a player’s medical condition.
If only we paid as much attention to our own well-being. Yes, men are notorious for ignoring their health, deferring any effort to seek help, and generally paying more attention to the condition of their cars and the status of athletes they follow. Double the indifference when it comes to mental health.
On the help-giving side, men respond magnificently — in certain situations, potentially missing the psychological benefits of more frequent opportunities. As reported by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, men tend to offer “heroic help,” like in emergency situations, “interventionist help” to strangers encountering accidents and “chivalrous help” to women.
However, when it comes to everyday assistance, women are more apt to offer sensitive emotional support to spouses and friends, and relational support to workplace peers and subordinates.
The bottom line, experts suggest, is that giving support reduces stress and caring for others is not just the “right thing to do,” but critical to our species’ survival.
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Male stereotypes still dominate
We’re centuries from the Paleolithic Era, but the contemporary behavior of men would have you think that cavemen still exist. According to the Mayo Clinic, men are reluctant to discuss symptoms of stress or depression with family or friends, let alone a doctor or mental health professional.
Digging deeper, researchers have pinned such hesitancies to traditional masculinity norms in which help-seeking is viewed as a weakness or as feminine, and men aspire to be powerful and self-sufficient, among other traits. Men just can’t seem to shake the control of stereotypes and accept the help they need.
The power of giving
According to the Cleveland Clinic, studies show that giving, including offering emotional support to those around us, boosts the giver’s physical and mental health. Studies have found that the health benefits associated with giving include lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, less depression, lower stress levels, a longer life and greater happiness.
Unfortunately, men typically fail at the basic level of providing emotional support due to a lack of understanding, poor empathy, misallocation of focus, attention or outside distraction. They frequently are unskilled or inexperienced in the art of emotional touch that can lead to emotional nurturing and healing. Often this is compounded by gender roles. Men who are taught to lead, protect and provide do just that when their partner is truly in search of compassion and understanding, not resolutions.
Recognizing the need for help
So, how does a man know when he needs help? What should he do?
While men and women share many of the same symptoms for depression, the clinicians at Harvard Medical School have identified symptoms that are more likely in men: irritability, loss of interest in work or hobbies, sleep problems, physical problems such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain, and alcohol or substance abuse. Talking to a clinician is part of their recommended treatment, with medication if prescribed. The bottom line: recognizing the need for help is job one.
As a preventative measure, Mayo offers some ideas for managing stress that you’ve heard from me before, but have equal application when it comes to coping with stress: getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet.
Learning how to give emotionally
It’s a win-win. The support-giver and receiver benefit from the exchange.
How does it work? Synthesizing a vast amount of literature on the topic and injecting in some of my own experience, here are my top three tips for men who want to give emotional support:
- Understand the value-difference between men and women: Earlier, I referenced the basic differences in how men and women view and provide support. If the one whom you seek to support is a woman, you must understand a woman’s value proposition. Process, like talking and nurturing, is equally, if not more important than outcome. Men are fixers and it’s tough to restrain ourselves from the instinctual dash to resolve a problem. Sometimes women just want to talk, and that’s enough. While the approach flies in the face of our programming, understanding the values of the one who needs support is foundational.
- Play the long game: Men are often transactional in nature. Relationships are longterm. Your emotional support, whether for a spouse, family member or friend, needs to be considered within the context of the individual’s longterm interests. It’s the end game that matters most. Whether it’s advice on how to achieve the recipient’s end game or help them define the end game, you need to think longterm.
- Show some feelings: If you’re giving emotional support, it’s got to be genuine. Anything else puts you at risk of being labeled as a phony. Unless you are prepared to put in the time and effort, don’t bother. Friendship and emotional health require a commitment of time and energy.
Getting and giving help have taken on new meaning in the COVID era. Like many of the healthy behaviors emerging during the pandemic, these factors have the power to promote both physical and mental well-being, and defend you against the perils of these times.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of “Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Louis on his website.