'I'm too afraid it will make me look weak': How gender differences are impacting men with anxiety

Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

For as long as Jory Katz can remember, he’s struggled with anxiety.

As a child, he remembers being unable to sleep the night before a hockey game. It was normal to feel nervous and excited, but this was something more; something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

Things changed when the Dundas, Ont. native was in his senior year of high school. Anxiety and panic spilled into his school work and relationships, and his personality changed. Katz began having panic attacks and his back muscles would seize up leaving him in horrible pain. Eventually he became so overwhelmed that he cut himself off from his family and friends and spent a majority of his university years in hiding.

ALSO SEE: Parenting during the pediatric anxiety epidemic

Despite being the no. 1 mental health issue for Canadians, there continues to be a pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness that causes many people, particularly men, to suffer in silence.

When examining anxiety and gender differences statistics reveal that women are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder. These findings were mirrored in a recent survey conducted by Abacus Data on behalf of Yahoo Canada, 71 per cent of females under 30 consider themselves someone who struggles with anxiety, compared to only 53 per cent of males.

Image via Abacus Data/Yahoo Canada.
Image via Abacus Data/Yahoo Canada.

However, data regarding gender and anxiety is skewed, due to the fact that men are less likely than women to report or seek treatment for mental health issues. For Katz, it was only at the insistence of his parents that he agreed to seek treatment.

“When I’m anxious, I become a different version of myself,” the 31-year-old revealed during a phone interview from his home in Toronto. “When I finally went to talk to someone about my mental health, I learned that a lot of the things I was dealing with that I thought were signs of depression were more-so rooted in anxiety.”

Katz began Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and was prescribed two different medications to manage his anxiety. Although he says taking antidepressants initially helped with his symptoms, Katz eventually stopped taking medication after experiencing numerous side effects.

“I had a very poor experience with therapy,” he said solemnly. “I felt pushed into taking medication right away. It was given to me before my entire story was told. I don’t think mental health should be approached that way. Did medication help with my anxiety and depression? Yes, but it changed my personality to a point where I didn’t even recognize the way I behaved.”

ALSO SEE: The difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder – and why having anxiety might benefit you

Although Katz feels more comfortable discussing his mental health with his friends and family, he’s aware that many men don’t necessarily feel the same.

“I think there’s still a misunderstanding between stress and anxiety – whether it’s in the workplace or real life,” he says. “I feel like as a man, the expectation is for me to just deal with it and get things done. I don’t feel comfortable telling my boss that I deal with anxiety or if I’m having a panic attack and need to take a minute. I’m too afraid it will make me look weak.”

Jory Katz shares his experience living with anxiety as part of <em>Yahoo Canada’s</em> month-long mental health series. Image courtesy of L.A. West
Jory Katz shares his experience living with anxiety as part of Yahoo Canada’s month-long mental health series. Image courtesy of L.A. West

According to Dr. Martin Antony, professor of Psychology at Ryerson University and author of the Anti-Anxiety Workbook, societal expectations of men and women play a tremendous factor in how both genders approach mental health.

“Men are encouraged to be strong, and not express emotions that display vulnerability,” Antony said. “Like fear, anger is a response to threat – fight or flight response. Men are socialized to express anger when faced with anxiety. It’s easier to express anger, and often more acceptable.”

For Katz, many in his social circle often mistake his social anxiety for aloofness, especially when he’s using his cellphone as an outlet to channel his nerves. Whenever he feels overwhelmed, he says he feels compelled to check every app on his phone and clear every notification.

“I’ve had moments where I’m at a social gathering and I’m nodding and smiling along but I’m totally consumed by my phone the entire time,” Katz said. “The checking the phone, as rude as it is, I can’t explain to people that I just have to do this. There are some days where I’m the most outgoing person at a party, and meeting friends, and then there are times where I’m just looking for the perfect window to leave everyone without saying goodbye.”

Why don’t more men report anxiety?

According to Antony, the gender differences in parenting may actually be part of the reason why more men don’t report dealing with anxiety.

“One of the things we know affects anxiety is the extent that people do the things they’re afraid of. If you’re afraid of snakes, driving or heights – the best way to get over it is to do the things they’re afraid of,” he explains. “Men are encouraged to take risks growing up, they’re less likely to continue having those fears because it’s socially unacceptable for them to avoid things they’re most likely to overcome those fears.”

Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

ALSO SEE: Recreational marijuana a tempting treatment for anxiety

Conditioning men instead of women to confront the things that worry them helps perpetuate the disadvantage for women to develop anxiety. However, it further reinforces the idea that men can’t or should not be open about their fears, which can lead to them seeking alternative outlets to manage stress. Anxiety Canada reports that approximately 30 per cent of men with anxiety forego seeking treatment in favour of self medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Katz says he’s hesitant to go back to therapy, and for the most part tries to manage his anxiety on his own through meditation, exercise and admits to self-medicating with marijuana to help him relax.

“I used to be more of a 24/7 smoker, but now it’s more to take the edge off,” Katz said. “I sometimes get looked at as ‘the stoner friend’ but not many people understand why I smoke. It’s more so something that I know works when I’m ready to relax and turn off the thoughts in my head.”

Now legal in Canada, Antony explains that any substance used to manage anxiety (drug or alcohol) has the potential to develop into something harmful.

“There are no controlled trials to suggest if marijuana is an effective treatment for anxiety,” Antony said. “Substances become a problem when they interfere with your lifestyle; your work or your relationships. For a lot of people, having a glass of wine at the end of the day is a way they unwind. However, anything that you do that prevents you from confronting the things you’re afraid of is a problem. Any safety behaviour like drinking, smoking marijuana, asking for reassurance 10 times an hour – it can all be an issue.”

As he continues to find ways to manage his anxiety, Katz is relying on his friends and family for support and remains hopeful that more men will feel comfortable talking about living with anxiety.

I have a lot of male friends who don’t understand anxiety, but that’s why we need to talk about it,” he said. “The more we talk about it, the more the people in our lives can learn how they can help us. It’s OK to have self doubt, and to not be OK – not everyone can be the best family member, friend or partner all the time. It doesn’t make you any less of a man or less of a woman to recognize that you need help. Everyone needs help sometimes.”

During the month of October, Yahoo Canada is delving into anxiety and why it’s so prevalent among Canadians. Read more content from our multi-part series here.

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Abacus Data, a market research firm based in Ottawa, conducted a survey for Yahoo Canada to test public attitudes towards anxiety as a medical condition, including social stigmas and cultural impacts. The study was an online survey of 1,500 Canadians residents, age 18 and over, who responded between Aug. 21 to Sept. 2, 2019. A random sample of panelists were invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.53%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted according to census data to ensure the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region.