The emotional blanket. Australian men and depression – some new insights.
Current statistics show that Australian women are much more likely to be medically diagnosed with depression than are Australian men. Shockingly, and counter-intuitively, the figures also show that young Australian men are four times more likely to kill themselves because of depression than are Australian women. The suicide risk is highest for males between the ages of 18 and 27 – and the rates have tripled in the last 30 years.
What does this tell us about the pressures faced by modern Aussie men, and, more importantly, what can they do about it? Actually, plenty on both counts – though the real answers may be as surprising as the statistics themselves.
Clinical depression comes in several guises, and with varying degrees of severity. On the low end of the scale we might feel general lethargy, mild anxiety, listlessness, lack of fulfilment or low self-esteem. The middle ground is laden with feelings of victim-hood, worry, feeling stressed or angry, mired and stuck, regularly tired, or foggy and numb, and is often associated with either increased appetite or loss of appetite. If you recognise some of these symptoms then you may be suffering from some form of depression, and I’m hoping that the suggestions in this article will help. The most extreme depression can come with feelings of complete and lasting overwhelm, physical collapse, desperation, alienation, hopelessness, physical pain, and suicidal thoughts and plans. If you recognise these symptoms you need to seek qualified medical attention and get help right away.
Traditionally, the causes of depression are reckoned to be difficult life circumstances: ones that seem pervasive and lasting, ones that feel difficult or impossible to handle. High on most lists are bullying and school examination pressures for teenagers, sexual problems, relationship problems and separation or divorce, job loss or unemployment, financial difficulties and debt, homelessness, and the death of a spouse or close loved one. We all recognise the patterns from the tragic newspaper reports that have become all too common: man faced with severe life difficulties is driven to the end of his coping abilities and, in desperation, kills himself (and increasingly, it seems, others). But, harsh though our life traumas may be, they are simply catalysts, triggers, of depression, and not the real cause. The root causes lie deeper.
The real causes:
In recent decades the value of many old-model social and family roles of masculinity has been challenged and undermined. Qualities appreciated in men 30, 50 or more years ago are today often derided, and modern men can no longer rely on the identity-bolstering effect of ‘macho’ role playing – bread-winner, achiever, protector, authority, head-of-the-household. This has left men lost, confused and disoriented. The result, in my experience and in that of the many men I have worked with over the last 12 years, is that we’ve become emotional liars, unable to admit the truth about our feelings of general impotence, deluding ourselves about our real emotional responses to life, wheel-spinning frantically in an effort to find an identity, and to suppress, deny or alter what we really feel.
And no, I’m not banging on about men ‘needing to get in touch with their feminine side’ here. This is something different. 21st century men simply don’t know what or how they really feel.
Instead, we have become obsessed with images of how we think we should be. From the movie picture ideals of confidence, fame and wealth, to the dynamic and sexualised ads for exotic European cars and romantic vacations in unspoilt paradises, to the clothes and equipment with the right labels, and the macho and aggressive sporting behaviour that defines ‘real winners’ – we think we know how the ideal man should be, how he should feel, how he should be celebrated and prized, but we haven’t a clue what to do when real life intervenes. We’ve become so invested in commercially-driven idealised images of living that we’ve trapped ourselves in a trance of pseudo-emotional life, pretending that we’re on top, in control, winning, ‘cool’ and confident, pretending to believe in our own false façades, when in fact we’re often flailing uncertainly, unsure of ourselves, anxious, fearful and desperate. To compensate, and to maintain our image of having it all together, we’ve become dissociated from our own real feelings. In fact we’ve pretty much entirely forgotten about them.
Sure, we can act out anger and rage in the surf or on the sports field, we can spill it out over weak targets such as smaller guys, girlfriends, wives or children. We can joke after the event about fear, and how much we were ‘shitting ourselves,’ when we faced the 5 metre swell or the opposition rugby forwards (or the job interview, or the first date), we can hype ourselves up into states of bravado and forced optimism, and we can bullshit our way through the more tender stuff with women (particularly in an effort to get laid), but often that’s about it – it’s close to our full range of emotional expression. We never stop to really feel the anger or the terror. We don’t fully open or let go emotionally in intimate moments, and we act out our egoic stuff instead of feeling vulnerable or weak or a failure. We posture and pretend we’re in control of our circumstances, and we seek to ‘fix’ life’s problems in order to avoid feeling the real emotions those challenges evoke. We fool around and joke in a blokey way about deeper issues, we obliviate the negative stuff with alcohol or recreational drugs, or we grit our teeth, and stoically ‘bear life like a man’, using internal dialogue or intellectual analysis to modify our emotional responses, to turn things down to a manageable, not-so-bad, level. Often we tune out our real emotions to such an extent that eventually we relate only to what we are thinking, or what we are doing, and we can’t even accurately identify what we are feeling.
These behavioural habits are some of the real causes of depression. To feel emotions is a quintessential part of the human experience, but we’ve lost the ability to respond to life in an emotionally truthful way. We’ve become so scared of our own feelings, and so caught up in the game of emotional suppression, modification, avoidance and denial that, when life turns ugly on us, the body’s natural, healthy, emotional response is not available. Instead, when faced with loss, disappointment, fear, grief, we do what we have become used to doing – we turn up the intensity of our game-playing, telling ourselves more stories about how we are feeling instead of feeling it, further shoving down, manipulating or running away from our bodies’ innate emotional reactions. Eventually, our habits become so confused and counter-productive that it seems like the only option is to tune out, to blanket over and cover all strong emotional responses – and that is a game of depression.
And it’s a game of diminishing returns. The more we tune out and dampen feelings down, the more our bodies shut down and become lethargic. The more our bodies shut down, the more our bliss chemicals, endorphins, get out of whack, causing us to feel depressed – which in turn causes our bodies to shut down more. It’s a vicious, downward spiral into a place where body and being feel pained, bogged down, and emotional sensation in numbed.
Over time, our emotions have got a bad reputation, and we’ve come to fear the so-called negative ones as if they are going to kill us. Ironically those same emotions, even the worst of them, are our doorway to peace, fulfilment and bliss. I discovered this at the age of 17, only to discount and forget it for the next 20 years.
At 17 I was experiencing my first fully sexual relationship. My girlfriend was difficult, demanding and a ‘drama queen’. I was insecure, anxious and bullshitting. We both had difficulties in our home lives. Things were going badly and got worse when, some months into the relationship, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide.
One evening shortly afterwards, alone at home, I sat silently on the sofa and relaxed. I recognised a feeling of hopelessness that had been a recent emotional undercurrent, and I decided to open my body and feel it – just to experience what that would be like. So I allowed it all to come, to just flood through my body. It was overwhelming and pervasive, as hopelessness took over all consciousness. After a few minutes I seemed to fall deeper in, and the feeling changed to one of complete pointlessness – a pointlessness so huge and poignant that the whole universe, all life, all existence, felt utterly pointless. I stayed still and simply allowed all of the feeling to come. Again, after some minutes, I seemed to sink deeper in. This time a huge awareness of blankness, of nothingness, arose. It seemed grey, devoid of all quality, vast, endless. I let all remaining resistance subside and, almost immediately, the feeling began to get lighter, as if some effervescent energy were creeping in. It began to feel uplifting.
As I opened to feel it all, I was washed through with a peace that was unlike any peace I had ever experienced. It was deeper, more complete, and carried a huge sense of wellbeing. Ultimately, in the heart of this peace I discovered bliss – a bliss that scintillated with energy and freshness, a bliss that included all existence and was at complete ease with all life. I sat in the bliss for around a half-hour.
It was a massively profound and revealing experience, and I did what I guess many red-blooded males would have done under the circumstances: I snapped out of it, telling myself that I was being girly and getting off on my emotions. I quickly forgot the whole thing and went back to ‘normality’. What a mistake that was. What had been revealed was the direct experience of a truth known through the ages to some esoteric spiritual groups: that complete freedom, wholeness, fulfilment – the divine, or the soul – lie in the heart of any emotion, no matter how painful that emotion is. And I threw it away.
It took two decades of psyching myself up, trying to create a positive, goal-focussed attitude, and wrestling with and suppressing the negativities of life to rediscover what I had forgotten. I settled often instead for the grey numbness peppered with cyclical hopelessness and collapse that was my experience of depression, alternating between driven activity and total collapse. It was not until the age of 37 that I met mind-body healing pioneer of The Journey, Brandon Bays, and in one session healed completely from my depressive patterns. The main technique – you’ve guessed it – getting emotionally real, sitting still and awake, and opening to the full potency of the emotional experience while ‘dropping through the emotional layers’. Emotions, she taught, are the gateway to the soul.
This time the levels were different. I felt rage and fear, and a whole array of intense emotions, before falling into a state of wonder, oneness and connectedness with everything. The depression fell away instantly. It was as if, in being willing to meet the worst that could be felt, the blanket of suppression no longer had any reason to exist. Since that day I have remained 100% depression free.
So, if you experience depression, is the answer really this simple: you just sit down and fully feel your deepest emotions and all will be well? Let’s say it’s a huge step in the right direction. And there are a few things that are good to remember before you plunge right in.
First, most of us have conditioned responses which automatically alter what we are really feeling. We habitually run internal dialogues and pictures about our emotions, telling ourselves stories about how we feel rather than actually feeling it. It might take a while to get still and allow your mind-talk to wind down, cleanly feel what’s in your body. Be patient while your body gets used to the process.
Secondly, many of us have ingrained fears about feeling emotions. Fear of anger or rage are common, as is fear of fear itself. Others of us fear embarrassment, humiliation, incompetence, boredom, rejection, loneliness, vulnerability, powerlessness, and so on. The key here is to let yourself realise what an emotion really is: it’s just an electro-chemical change taking place in your body. It has no meaning other than the meaning you give to it. If you resist and wrestle with it you can make it last a long time, but if you soften your body and drop all resistance, you can fully meet the emotion, and it will last only minutes – it naturally burns itself out, and you move on to the next experience. So, stop the story about emotions, and let your body know that all emotions are entirely safe to feel. Kids do it all the time, and if it’s safe for them, it’s safe for you.
Thirdly, there is a profound and critical difference between fully feeling, surrendering to the full force of an emotion, and emotional catharsis. Blaming others for your emotional state, shouting or getting aggressive doesn’t work – as well as behaving abusively, you’ll at best get temporary relief. Even the pillow-beating technique, or yelling at someone’s photograph is ultimately just an avoidance of the deeper emotional drives. Acting out the emotion is essentially different from the inner experience of owning it and completely feeling it. So, if someone comes to mind during the feeling process, just allow it, feel what you’re feeling, and let go of the image. Your job here is to feel whatever comes up, no matter what. Even if it feels like your body will implode or explode, just stay with it and see it through – it’s all part of the process.
With some practice – and with a willingness to face the sharp, temporary sting, or the fierce, temporary burn of your emotions – your body will no longer need the blanket of depression that it has previously used to keep things under wraps. As I was saying, this has nothing particularly to do with your ‘feminine’ side. This is not all touchy-feely or lovey-dovey. It’s intense, and it takes courage – real courage – the courage to feel. So, take it step by step and your body will gradually learn that it’s safe.
When it does, then it can begin co-operating more healthily with you, and you’ll begin to experience more floods of the lovely endorphins your brain produces to give you a natural (hangover-free) high. Start telling the deeper truth of how you feel to a mate you can trust, or your partner – just for the practice of truth telling and talking about how you feel. No need to labour the point or moan about things, just tell the simple truth. Then, instead of the old game-playing, make the regular choice to stop and face your real emotions. Make them your friends. You’ll find that more resourceful strategies for dealing with life’s challenges will come naturally to you – effortless answers will arise to deal with difficulties that previously seemed unbeatable – and the problems themselves will seem less weighty.
I’ve listed below some simple techniques that can really help with depression. Reading this article alone won’t make the shift in your life: doing the work will. Thousands of men around the world have found freedom by using these methods. So, make the decision, take the step-by-step actions – you’ve got nothing to lose but your old blanket!
How to do it:
Find some space and take some quiet time, at least 30 to 45 minutes. Have a pen and paper by your side for later. Turn off the phones and the TV. Just sit in silence for a while, and invite your mind-talk to relax, wind down and fall into the background.
Allow your body to relax and soften, while staying fully awake. With your eyes closed, bring all your awareness inside and imagine looking down into your body. Tune in to the sensations there, and notice how they make you feel.
Admit the truth that underneath the surface there are some emotions that you’ve previously avoided. Welcome them to reveal themselves, to come out of the hidden places, or the stuck or secret areas.
If words arise inside, listen to them then ask, “How does that really make me feel?”
Let the feelings come fully and let them turn themselves up within your body, as you continue to relax and open.
When the emotion has been fully experienced you could ask, “What’s in the core of this?” and just allow yourself to open wider into the experience.
If any person comes to mind during the process, just notice who it is and let the image disappear. Keep feeling the emotion.
At some point you may experience a nothingness, a void, or an emptiness that is devoid of emotion. Know that this is part of the process, and treat it like any other feeling. If you feel stuck at any time, soften the body, relax any contraction of mind and welcome all stuck-ness. Really experience it fully – this too is just another level of feeling.
Eventually you will open into a positive sensation. Normally this will feel vast an expansive, as if it permeates everything. Open into the core of the positive feeling a couple of times until you are steeped in it. Then rest here for a while.
If a person showed up on the way down through the levels, softly open your eyes, then pick up the pen and paper. Write to them from this place of openness. Empty your feelings about them onto the page – really get it all out, negative and positive. Just let it pour until there’s no more to say. Then, from this place of emptiness, forgive them for any hurt or damage they may have caused you in the past. If you can’t forgive them fully, empty out some more, then forgive them. This forgiveness is powerfully healing, and will set you free from the ‘hook’ of the emotion associated with that person.
Staying in this expansive place, check if any inspiration wants to reveal itself from within. If so, just allow the words to write themselves onto the page. These may be antidotes to some worries, new life plans, or just general advice to yourself. Keep this advice on hand for future reference – it may contain some profound wisdom that will help shape your future life.
Make a date with yourself to go through this exercise again. It gets easier and better with time and a little practice.
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