The Stress Trap: Men Living with Anger and Emotional Detachment

The number of men living under severe stress has remained at epidemic proportions despite advances in self care over the last generation. It is estimated that 43% of all adults are suffering the adverse health effects of stress including increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems and asthma. Less serious, but also troubling are concerns like frequent headaches, difficulty sleeping and upset stomach that plague many American men today.

While men are exercising more and watching their diet, many find that they are still navigating their days on a “low simmer” of frustration. This frustration tends to “boil over” when confronted with obstacles such as disrespect, loss of control or dwindling life choices. Though fewer men are reaching for the bottle as in their father’s generation, other strategies like “manning up,” and “keeping it in” tend to have limited effectiveness in managing feelings related to stress. In fact, those types of strategies often contribute to greater outbursts of anger or emotional retreat from others. Career, marriages and other important relationships often suffer or even fall apart as a consequence.

In my work I often find that much of this stress is related to a growing awareness that as men we often feel like we are trying to please everyone, but end up fully pleasing no one, including ourselves. While admired and often rewarded for assertiveness in the workplace, men today are often at a loss for what role to play in their own lives.

Critics have pointed out that the most celebrated television dramas of our day echo men’s search for a more satisfying role in life given the empowerment of women over the most recent generations. Don Draper of television’s “Mad Men” embodies a “traditional” male caught in the cross currents of the emergence of feminism during the 1950’s and 1960’s. He discovers the limits of healing to be had from “wine, women and song” and becomes increasingly aware that his life has drifted out from under him. Tony Soprano and Walter White of “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” represent contemporary adaptations of males adrift and gone very bad, indeed. Walter seeks cash and control to quell his anxieties. Tony, one of the most infamous therapy clients of all time, does the same, but with an added emphasis on more traditional pleasures.

Clearly, using these anti-heroes as role models would lead to similar, negative outcomes and much of the content of these shows, though well crafted and compelling dramatized, functions as fantasy and wish-fulfillment. This leaves many men wondering just what it takes to manage their own feelings of stress-related role confusion.

I have found in my own work that helping men ground themselves through mindfulness techniques helps to bring greater clarity to their values. Such clarity leads to a more acute awareness that some of the noise of life can be “turned down” in order to bring greater focus to those aspects of our lives that are truly meaningful.

In a similar vein, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), teaches strategies to increase your ability to cope with painful thoughts and feelings that lead to stress. Developed by Dr. Russ Harris, ACT breaks mindfulness skills into three categories:

1) Diffusion: Distancing from, and letting go of unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories.
2) Acceptance: Making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle.
3) Contact with the Present Moment: Engaging fully with your “here-and-now” experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

“Going it alone” has never really been a viable option and many men today are paying the price through unnecessarily high levels of stress, anger and emotional detachment. These interventions, along with peer support, help to decrease isolation, and improve relationships while adding a greater sense of richness to life that, for many, is lacking.