Anxiety sucks! Okay, that’s an overgeneralization. The kind of anxiety that’s hard-wired into our human existence as a means of survival, that’s a good thing (preventing us from walking down dark alleys and whatnot). But, the kind of anxiety that is a rising epidemic in our modern society – the kind that lingers and builds and we can’t seem to shake even when there’s no logical reason to be filled with anxiety – that part sucks! And as men, by in large, we suffer from it in silence. We don’t want to appear weak, we convince ourselves that we can handle it, and so we just trudge on despite feeling internally like we could crumble at any second.
If you’re already thinking, “this doesn’t apply to me…this is some statistically insignificant portion of the general population. Time to go looking for cat-fail videos,” then just hold on because it’s a much bigger deal than you might think. Over 6,000,000 men in America suffer from depression (often closely related to anxiety), and over 19 million American adults have an anxiety disorder (I’m sure it’s not, but if that was evenly split between the genders, it would be over 9 million men) (SOURCE). And, because of the way we men tend to be, roughly 75% of us don’t seek treatment because we’re too afraid to admit we have an issue. And because of that, the male suicide rate is about 4-times higher than that of females (SOURCE). Men, we can’t keep suffering in silence…admit you have issues and let people help you figure out how to overcome them! In the interest of setting the example, a little about my story…
I’ve had a couple run-ins with generalized anxiety and depression in my adult life. Both times were primarily work-related, and both were pretty rough. Most recently was about two years ago…I could feel it building, I had been there before, but I was afraid of appearing weak. Even though the source of it was my job, the thought of going to my boss and saying, “I just can’t handle this! The work-load is unbearable, it’s not the position I want to be in to begin with, so can we please figure something out?” was just too terrifying for me to seriously consider. So, I continued to spiral into a world filled with panic attacks and depression. I’d spend every ounce of mental and emotional energy I had just to hold it together through the work day (with occasional flights from the campus just to sit in a parking lot and hyperventilate for a little while), and then I’d come home with absolutely nothing left to offer my family. Once I realized that this was not something I could handle on my own, I decided that I would rather lose my job than my family or mental health.
I wish I could tell you it was one simple conversation, everyone understood completely, and life was different overnight…but that’s not reality. It took several conversations over the course of almost a year, some medication to get me through the worst of it, some counseling (which I highly recommend…there’s not shame in it), and a final “come to Jesus” moment where I essentially laid it all on the table and said, “I need a different job immediately, or I will resign.” That was a scary moment and quite the gamble, but it all ended up working out. The actual victory in that situation was putting my money where my mouth was and proving to myself that my priority really was my family and my long-term health. (Personal Disclaimer: if it sounds like I’m just a drama-queen or a difficult employee, the job I was stuck in is now being done by 3 full-time people…so it was absolutely an unhealthy situation).
I tell you all that in hopes that maybe you’ll see some of yourself in my situation. That maybe you’ve just assumed guys are supposed to be stressed out all the time, that providing for your family is the burden we’re supposed to bear and it’s normal to feel constantly anxious. If you’re dealing with the sleepless nights, the tightness in your chest, or - if it’s gone on long enough - perhaps you’re starting to feel legitimately depressed. Because, left untreated, continual anxiety will lead you to a depressed state…your mind can’t handle being freaked out all the time, and so eventually it starts to shut down and uses the safety net of an apathetic depression to shield you from the anxiety. If that’s you (or someone you know), it’s time to speak up! You may need some professional help, or your first step might be just telling someone close to you what’s been going on. Either way, please don’t wait any longer to deal with it, because life is too short to spend so much of it in misery.
Now, I don’t want this to just be some sort of motivational speech. What I’ve learned by going through this mess is that there are a few very practical and very simple things that can help alleviate a whole bunch of the anxiety you may be facing. You still may need some professional treatment, but the following three tips are a great place to start and they are things I still make a part of my daily routine to stay ahead of anxiety in my own life.
Put Self-Care at the Top of your Priority List
Okay, I realize “self-care” is a pretty fluffy-sounding term that’s all the rage in some circles right now, but it is a legitimately overlooked issue by a bunch of dudes. We don’t take care of ourselves or give ourselves permission to do what we need to stay healthy, and so we just keep getting worse. What this looks like specifically can vary from guy to guy, but some standard practices are: working out/fitness, solitude/prayer/meditation, pursuing a meaningful hobby, and regular time off.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but I can guarantee that if you walk into a medical professional’s office due to anxiety or depression, one of the first things they will ask you about or recommend is regular physical exercise. And let me tell you, it works! I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up immediately anxious – you know, the second your eyes open you have 12 simultaneous thoughts about what you’re facing that day, and you’re instantly stressed out about everything. I’d drag myself out of bed anyway, and hit the gym…after a few sets of squats and deadlifts, the stress was gone and my attitude was much healthier. Essentially, I walked into the gym thinking “I don’t know if I can make it through the day,” and walked out feeling like, “I dare anyone or anything to F with me today.” Obviously, there’s a bunch of endorphins and stuff that kick in during exercise, but I think there is also a great mental reminder that takes place when you force your body to do difficult things. Step up to a heavy bar and force it to rise from the ground simply by gritting your teeth, straining your whole body, and making it happen…suddenly, that upcoming meeting with a difficult team-member doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Another note on regular time off – it’s never going to be convenient. If you’re a typical guy with a career and a family, there is NEVER a perfect time to get away. Especially when you’re in the throes of anxiety, the default response is simply to never relax or take time off. I slip into that mindset all the time during my seasons of anxiety, and I still find myself doing it during periods of extra stress. In fact, I am writing this right now on the deck of one of my favorite places in the world – the family cabin in Northern Arizona. I’m here for less than 48 hours in the middle of my most insane time of year. Over the course of 6 weeks, I’m out of town for 4 of them on work-trips that are unbelievably exhausting. 15-hour days, a million last-minute problems to solve and fires to put out, and barely enough time to FaceTime my family once every few days. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty about these trips that I enjoy and encompass the fun parts of my job, but the summer is just a brutal grind for me, plain and simple. And so, as this weekend approached, I had 1,000 excuses to cancel the trip. I still have work stuff waiting back at home, I’m leaving for my 3rd trip in a couple days, and by not being here I could be getting better prepared for next week. But, I could sense myself starting to hate life again. I just got back into town seven days ago, I missed my family like crazy, and since I’ve been back I’ve been working like a dog to get prepared for the next trip…I NEEDED some time away with them, even if it was a quick turnaround trip like this. The temptation to push off leisure time is strong, but you simply must force it towards the top of your priority list for your own mental well-being.
Control Whatever you can Control
A major source of anxiety is feeling like your entire life is out of your control. That is probably not actually the case, but it can very much feel that way from time to time. When it feels like you’re simply at the mercy of your bosses, like every time you get a handle on your tasks or schedule, some curve-ball from on-high comes your way and knocks you back down, like no matter how hard you work or how much you plan ahead, something is always going to happen to send your world into chaos. Believe me, I’ve been there (to be honest, sometimes I still find myself there).
Here’s what my counselor helped me see – there will always be things I can’t control in life, and all anyone can do is just roll with those punches. But, there is much more about our lives under our control than we tend to recognize. I control if I get up in the morning and hit the gym. I control if I dwell on that work issue, or if I choose to push it out of my mind and focus on something positive and life-giving at night. I ultimately control if I get up and go to work that day. (Yes, there are repercussions for not showing up to work that make most of us keep going there, which makes it seem like we don’t really have a choice. But, we do ultimately choose to stay there, and we could feasibly quit at any moment.)
Side-Note: One of my pieces of homework during counseling was to look through job-postings in different fields. He didn’t want me to apply to any of them or send out resumes necessarily – he just wanted me to be aware that there are other things I could do to provide for my family and that I was truly not forced to stay in a job that was sucking the life out of me. It was surprisingly helpful!
What those of us feeling totally out of control need to do is to focus on (and maybe even make a physical list of) all the parts of your day that you can control. Then, as you make those choices, keep yourself consciously aware that you are choosing and controlling the moment. Also, find some outside thing that you can totally control if that helps you. This could be a hobby, a blog, your diet, your fitness routine…it could be almost anything. Late to the Game was born out of this necessity for me – I needed something that was completely mine, that no boss or committee was speaking into and telling me what it had to be or how it had to look. I continue to pour my efforts into it two years later because I love it, I sincerely want to help other people, and because it helps me through those tougher days at work to have something on the side that no one else can control. Ultimately, I’m making such a big deal out of the control issue because when we don’t have control we feel trapped, and few things make a man more anxious than feeling trapped. So, take control of what you can, roll with what you can’t, and remember that you actually have a lot more autonomy than it feels like you do.
Talk to Somebody About It
Okay, this is the part where every guy who was with me bails out. I get it – we hate admitting weakness or appearing like we don’t have it all together. I hate it too! But, the simple fact is that none of us have it all figured out. As long as you suffer in silence, afraid to tell anyone what’s going on, you’re probably never going to break out of this cycle. It may start with a spouse or significant other (heads-up: they already know something is up), or it may just be a close friend that you trust. You may not have anyone you can think of that you trust on this level, so you might have to google a therapist near you, trust the reviews, and go talk to that guy as the first person you share it with. Whatever the case may be for you, there is tremendous healing in getting this issue out in the open and beginning to work through it.
For me, I did all three. I talked to my wife – who as I’ve mentioned in other posts, is awesome – and she was incredibly understanding and supportive. I won’t pretend like those evenings where I came home from work, walked straight to the bedroom, and just lied there in the dark the rest of the night were easy on her (like I said, things got rough for a while), but she was in my corner, praying for me, and at least I was communicating with her what was going on. She knew I didn’t want to be like that, and that I was taking steps to dig my way out of it. I also had a couple close friends who were removed from the situation that I could talk to and just get things off my chest. Sometimes they had helpful advice, sometimes they just listened, but it was incredibly therapeutic just to talk with men I trusted about what was really going on. And, as I mentioned before, I did some counseling. If you’ve never done it before, it’s a lot of talking, he asks some questions, you talk some more, he asks some more questions…and on and on it goes.
A word of warning if you decide to get some counseling for the first time in your life (which is a great idea, by the way): you will not walk out of that first session feeling better. He won’t have given you any answers, you’ll have a book to read or some homework to do (probably journaling), but you will be tempted to think, “well, this is a crock…I guess I’m on my own.” Let me encourage you to stick it out – at least for a few sessions. I saw my therapist six times over the course of 2-3 months, and I was definitely seeing some benefits and feeling some “breakthroughs” by session 3. Do the homework, spend a bunch of time in introspection, yes - the journaling did prove to be helpful…just give it a chance. You’re already paying for it, might as well get the most you can out of it, right?
Progress…Not a Finish Line
I know, that’s an encouraging heading. In my experience, anxiety definitely gets better, but it isn’t something that you ever fully “get over.” However, by doing the work, by implementing these three tips, and making some necessary lifestyle changes, you can get to a place where you mostly experience normal anxiety. You will encounter a stressful season, a busy week, even an occasional freak-out moment, but it doesn’t rule your life. No more panic attacks, no more waking up dreading the day – there is hope! You may have to make some significant changes – I had to all but quit my job (and honestly, you may have to quit yours) – but the difficulty or fear of those changes is well worth getting your life back. There are few things I wouldn’t willingly sacrifice to be the husband and father I know I am called to be.
So, what about you? Is there one primary source of your anxiety? Either find ways to better manage it and cope with those challenges, or be willing to make drastic changes. I mean it: life is too short to spend it being miserable, and constant anxiety is not worth the paycheck, status, or whatever you’re chasing that has kept you there all this time.