Men and emotions

by Ezra Hewing | 12 Jun 2023

Society’s opinions are often divided, but most of us agree that mental health is important. Wherever we stand on other issues, we agree we need the knowledge and skills to handle stress and negative emotions.

However, agreement can break down on the topic of men and emotions.

Sometimes dubbed the ‘crisis of masculinity’, academics, politicians and the media often disagree on the causes of men’s mental ill health and high rates of male suicide.

At the centre of this argument is the question of how men should handle emotions.

On one side are those who believe society teaches boys and men to be strong, independent, providers who then fear being seen as weak or vulnerable, and only feel able to express emotions like anger.

Some describe this as ‘toxic masculinity,’ and associate it with aggression, sexism and homophobia.

They argue that outdated masculine identities stop men from asking for help when they need it, causing them to turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope with stress and negative emotions, or to suicide as a last resort.

The solution, it follows, is to abandon traditional notions of masculinity, and to normalise men asking for help, expressing how they feel, and being able to cry in response to distress.

However, there are those who disagree. And perhaps this debate has become too polarised, with the solution, as is often the case, somewhere in the centre ground.

Some traditional conservatives see the erosion of men’s roles as breadwinners and providers for their families as the cause of addictions and high rates of suicide.

They argue that boys should be encouraged to grow up and become responsible, strong, hardworking and self-reliant men.

They believe that, as society has changed, boys have lost strong male role models who can teach them to remain strong in the face of adversity. And that, because crying is at odds with male biology, encouraging them to do so is harmful and somehow ‘feminises’ them.

Where does this leave men who are struggling with stress and negative emotions, but reject the notion that talking about emotions or crying more often is helpful?

If they seek role models who champion traditional masculine ideals, they can find them amongst podcast hosts and social media influencers with millions of followers, some of whom also promote sexist, homophobic, and transphobic views.

So, which side is right? Are there answers which meet the needs of men regardless of political divides? And can we avoid alienating young men so that they are not left to seek advice from online sources with harmful agendas? How should men handle stress and negative emotions?

Research on men and emotions

Researchers working in men’s prisons, where men avoid displays of weakness to survive, have found that these behaviours are not a cause of mental ill health.

However, the same study found that men who felt they could only rely upon themselves, were then unwilling to ask for help with their mental health. And this presents a serious risk, particularly if the window to intervene when men are experiencing thoughts of suicide is missed.

What about the way in which men express emotions? Would their mental health benefit from crying?

Again, the answer is not straightforward. Despite being repeated often on wellness websites, the claim that crying helps to relieve stress hormones is supported by some studies but not by others.

But are there other benefits to crying?

Well, it seems to depend upon how others react to us when they see us crying. Researchers have shown that our negative moods last longer when we cry and that our mental health can deteriorate if we become stuck in a cycle of crying. However, if someone sees us crying, and steps in to provide us with the right kind of support, our mood improves.

In other words, crying can alert others to our distress. And this can be an essential step towards feeling able to resolve the unmet emotional needs which are the cause of our distress.

Is being ‘stoic,’ or putting up with hardship without talking to others about it, bad for men’s mental health?

Another theory which lingers in popular psychology, influenced by Freud, is the idea that unexpressed stress and negative emotions build up over the course of our lives and become ‘bottled up.’ But a large body of evidence suggests that REM sleep evolved to discharge emotions we have not expressed while awake.

Stress and negative emotions are a reaction to unmet emotional needs. And if a situation which is preventing someone from meeting their needs persists over time, and they are unable or unwilling to ask for help, this might be why it can seem as if men are ‘bottling up’ emotions.

So, part of the solution lies in addressing unmet emotional needs, but again, things are more complicated than they first appear.

There is some evidence that when men continually suppress emotions, including forms of anger, like frustration and annoyance, it can place an unhealthy strain on their physical organs, including their heart. However, the participants were men in the United States.

When similar studies were done with Chinese students, suppressing emotions had the opposite effect – there were no unhealthy effects on the body and their stress levels were reduced.

Why would there be such a different result?

One explanation put forward is that Chinese culture prioritises the harmony of the community over self-interest.

So, whether it is healthy or unhealthy seems to depend upon the meaning and purpose behind suppressing emotions. And this is where the skill of reframing comes in.

Reframing is the skill of recognising when we have a negative or inflexible perspective on events, and then stepping back to take a wider perspective.

This requires suppressing our initial reaction. For instance, when we assume that our current circumstances are permanent, and then remind ourselves that everything changes, even if it takes time.

Where does this leave us with men and emotions?

A few things seem clear. To avoid alienating men, particularly those who are drawn to traditional conservative values, those services which offer support should be careful about framing how men handle emotions in the terms of the political debate about masculinity.

This means being aware of our own political biases and recognising that not everyone shares them.

We also need to drop outdated ideas which overvalue becoming emotional without good cause. Indeed, this can be harmful to mental health.

Instead, there may be a lot to gain from recognising that suppressing negative emotions is a vital skill, but one which is of most benefit when we learn how to reframe negative thoughts and address unmet emotional needs.

And when men do become stuck with addressing unmet emotional needs, they may need to learn to seek assistance. But when assistance is offered, there needs to be a recognition that some men may be comfortable with sharing how they feel and asking for help. Meanwhile, others may respond better when their autonomy and independence are respected, and their ability to remain resilient and weather the storm in difficult times is valued too.

Recognising and valuing different approaches to handling emotions might be an essential step towards improving men’s mental health.

We’re here for you

If you need support, Suffolk Mind is here for you. Contact our team, or self-refer for one of our services today.

by Ezra Hewing

Ezra Hewing is Head of Education at Suffolk Mind and a Human Givens Therapist. Since joining Suffolk Mind in 2009, he has grown our busy workplace wellbeing service, training frontline mental health workers, doctors, nurses, substance abuse workers, members of the emergency services and heads of organisations, amongst others, in how best to understand and support emotionally healthy workplaces. He holds an MSc in the psychology and neuroscience of mental health from the internationally renowned Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King’s College, London, where he researched REM sleep and mental ill health, with a focus on the symptoms of schizophrenia.

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