Anxiety disorders are ranked as the sixth largest contributor to lifelong health concerns worldwide with an estimated 3.6% (264-million) of the global population living with anxiety.
The South African Stress and Health study, which was carried out in 2004, found that the lifetime prevalence for any mental health disorder was 30.3%, and that anxiety disorders were the most prevalent at 15.8%.
On average, one in eight men will have depression and one in five men will experience anxiety. And, even though statistics point towards women being twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, the reason might be more social than scientific.
Dr Ian Westmore, a member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists, says the stigma associated with anxiety disorders considers the condition as “unmanly” and a sign of weakness. He says “this is the very reason men are less likely to talk about their anxiety, and instead drown their anxiety with poor coping behaviours, increasing their risk of the anxiety or depression to go unrecognised and untreated”.
Furthermore, men are far less likely to seek support than women.
He emphasises that it’s a given that everyone will feel anxious from time to time and not every anxious episode should be seen as a disorder.
“It’s okay to worry about things and life’s many challenges. The difference is when that very worry is difficult to control or shake long past a certain experience or event and it starts interfering with your day-to-day activities or changes the way that you used to approach life. It severely affects relationships in that the coping mechanisms applied more often affects those close to you through alcohol, abusive behaviour and depression.
“Society expects a lot from men,” he says. “However, these traits that society has labelled men with could lead men to feeling inadequate.”
If left untreated, anxiety presents itself in many forms.
“Men who don’t speak out find inappropriate coping strategies that might dull the anxiety temporarily but could develop into a dependency that eventually spins out of control, aggravating the anxiety disorder.
“Abuse, gambling, drugs (including alcohol) and reckless behaviour are some of the confidence-gaining and coping mechanisms embraced by men. However, since they enable men to avoid their anxieties instead of facing them, these very mechanisms could aggravate the disorder.
“Anxiety can trigger anger in men with violence, bullying, abusiveness and explosive quick temper bursts as a result. Irritability and being edgy, touchy, cranky or impatient, becomes the norm reaction to everyday small and large frustrations. In addition, anxiety drives avoidance which, in turn, constricts lives. The result is a sense of an empty life that turns to depression with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.”
Westmore says a range of factors can contribute to or trigger the development of an anxiety disorder. These could be a genetic predisposition, as well as physical factors such as an imbalance of hormones and chemical messengers in the brain. But it can also be environmental factors such as excessive stress in a relationship, job or school or financial predicaments and traumatic life events.
Medical factors such as side effects of medication could also lead to an anxiety disorder.
“Anxiety is more than just a bit of stress, sweaty palms and a sense of butterflies in the stomach. The symptoms are far more severe and include continuous feelings of worry, fear and impending doom that are so severe they interfere with your ability to work, live a healthy life, maintain relationships and ability to sleep.”
Westmore points out some physical signs: a pounding or racing heart, excessive sweating, muscle tension or aches, restlessness or agitation, dizziness or vertigo, shortness of breath or a sensation of choking, insomnia, panic attacks, fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome.
Emotional signs include: constant worry about what could go wrong, perceiving situations and events as threatening when they are not, indecisiveness and fear of making the wrong decision, difficulty concentrating, feelings of dread, avoidance, irritability and edginess, nightmares or intrusive thoughts in which traumatic scenes are replayed in the mind, mood swings, being overly vigilant towards danger, absentmindedness and fear of losing control.
Persistent sadness, apathy, loss of hope or suicidal thoughts could show that the anxiety has morphed into a depression, a common condition seen together with anxiety disorders.
Westmore says it’s important for men to share their symptoms with someone they trust.
“Start with a family member or friend but always find your way to a healthcare professional.” He adds: “It’s important to note that you need to develop your own action plan that includes lifestyle changes, which is as much part of the recovery process as seeking medical attention.”
Linda Christensen is a communications consultant