Monday, April 9, 2018

What's silently killing men....because they won't talk about it

If you ever need to mainline a 100% shot of straight awesome, then I urge you to go watch that split second win the U.S. swim team pulled off against France in the Olympics a few years ago.  It's one of those moments that defy words.  Well, it defies a sentence of words.  It's a sports moment that cause us to shout out repetitive phrases in jubilant abundance.  Like "Oh my God!"  "Did you see that!"  "I can't believe it!"  "Wow!"

It's one of those moments.

On a much smaller scale, many of us get to experience these moments first hand.  A moment in our life that truly sits at the precipice of achievement.  It's the culmination of hard work, perseverance, and white knuckling through repeated bouts of oscillating between quitting and finding the desire to keep grinding.  Like that time I had to carve out a sailboat for Boy Scouts and had to race my sailboat against all the other scout clans in the local area.  I beat all of them.  You blew on the sail to move your boat down the trough.  And I destroyed all.  Because I blew harder than all of them.  Got my blue ribbon for being the biggest blow hard of the whole area.

I'm sure what I felt on that day wasn't dissimilar to what Michael Phelps felt as he realized he was about to get yet another gold medal in the Olympics.  Blue ribbon in Boy Scouts, gold medal in the Olympics.  Same shit.

As men, we live for those moments.  Declarations of achievement that we get to boast about to one another to set the pecking order.  Can you imagine being in a room with Michael Phelps trying to talk about that time you scored three touchdowns in high school to help your team overcome a halftime deficit?

"That's cool, man.  This one time in the Olympics..."

Well played, Phelps.  Well played.

As men, we find a great deal of our identity in achievement.  The greater the achievement, the more manly we are.  So a man such as Michael Phelps, who has a zillion gold medals, a fat bank account, the love and adoration of millions worldwide, has to be to men what the Grand Canyon is to ditches.  Surely he has to be filled with confidence each and every day that is unparalleled to what the high school football star or Boy Scout sail boat champ could ever know about.

Yet recently, Phelps came out about the many bouts of severe depression that he had struggled through.  To the degree that he worried about his own safety.  How could that even happen?  How could an ultimate man-bro such as Phelps, find anything to be depressed about?

The problem lies, for many men, in that the very thing that catapults them into those moments of exhilaration, is the very thing that sends them into the pits of despair.   The loss of self due to identification in what we do, and what we achieve.  When what we do becomes who we are, then all the moments that exist in between, life can become very empty.

Phelps talked about the great periods of depression between the Olympics.  And how he self medicated in order to cope in any way he could.  Eventually, coping through smoking weed or alcohol in order to numb down the pain just wasn't cutting it.  What saved him took more strength than swimming laps in a pool faster than anyone else alive.  And that was, being vulnerable and open about the very fact that he was depressed, and had contemplated suicide.

Depression and achievement - 

Let me spell this out for you in case it's hard to understand.  Achievement will not save you from the droves of depression.  If Phelps story doesn't punch you straight in the face about that, then you're fooling yourself.

You broke a world record in powerlifting.  Big deal.  He won a zillion gold medals against the most elite athletes in the world.  You can never know that level of achievement.  Yet he wasn't immune to feeling so overcome with depression, loneliness, and isolation that he almost ended his life.

When I was powerlifting, I got caught up in the same achievement based value system.  Constantly comparing my lifts to someone better.  Eventually, a huge sense of my self worth was derived by what I could lift.  This was affirmed to me by the internet and people with huge followings that never recognized my lifting.  Why would they?  I wasn't breaking world records.  Lost on me was that I allowed them to dictate how I felt about myself.  How I felt about myself was dictated through pounds on the bar. Let me state that in retrospect, I can't believe just how shallow and stupid that is.

Lost in this game of personal comparison was my joy.

Eventually I didn't enjoy training or competing because it was always about the numbers.  My sense of self worth was up or down, all depending on how my lifts were going, or how I performed in a meet.

When you attach your happiness to obtaining something, then once it's attained, you'll realize that the happiness attached to that becomes very fleeting.  From there we often set off on another road of goal attainment, once again believing that achievement is what will make us feel better about who we are.  But it won't sustain us.  It never does.  That road is paved with discontent and the reminder that we're so terribly unhappy because we don't have something.  Our identity ends up being what we do.  And when we're admired for what we do, then no one really loves us for who we are.  That's the story we will tell ourselves whether we openly acknowledge it or not.  Even worse, we don't come to love and appreciate ourselves for who we are.

That's the definition of an emotionally bottomless pit.

By the numbers - 

30% of men have admitted to suffering from some form of depression.

The suicide rate for men is four times that of women.

The older we get, the more likely it is we will succumb to these statistics.  Males that are 85 and older have the highest suicide rate of any demographic in the United States.

People suffering from loneliness or isolation are twice as likely to suffer from a premature death than those who aren't.

"Cool story, bro.  I want to know how to get jacked, swole, and put some numbers on my bench."

Cool story, bro.  You can't do any of those things from your grave.  But since you asked, here are some of the very real issues we as men suffer from physiologically when we're fighting loneliness.

Sleeplessness - Less sleep means a higher degree of muscle loss and less fat oxidation
Crappy immune systems - Impaired systemic recovery
Increase in cortisol - Worse body composition

In order to take care of what the outside looks like, it's vitally important to address what's going on inside first.

In order to possibly understand the cause behind these staggering numbers, it's imperative to look on the other side of the coin.  What men are living longer with a higher quality of life than men who find themselves in such dark places that they see no other way out than to take their own life?

What can we do as bros in order to keep ourselves out of those pits of despair, and cultivate a stronger sense of self that transcends into a higher quality of life each and every day?

Embrace vulnerability and talk about it - 

Phelps said his own personal healing didn't start until he found the courage to open up and talk about his depression.

Talking about feelings are usually alien concept to men.

The myriad of emotions that fill up the spaces between apathy and anger are vast and wide, but being openly expressive about feeling sad, lonely, isolated, or melancholy is usually avoided because men fear it can be perceived as weakness.  And yes, it is us as men that often perpetuate this problem by making other men feel as though it's Nancy Boy stuff to express any of the emotions that exist between apathy and anger.

Paradoxically, it's the weakest of men who refuse to admit they feel said array of emotions.  Which is why they often find themselves in the valleys of depression, and overcome with grief.  You feel weak in those valleys, but the ability to admit it is stunted by pride.

As men, we are great at compartmentalizing problems rather than expressing them.  We'd rather not talk about them because we feel it's a waste of time or just really freaking weird.  It's what women do.

Boohooing about sadness or feeling isolated is stupid when we could be installing a new nitrous kit in our drag car, or fighting a bear at the zoo.  Anything to distract us from talking about our problems.

But the real problem is that we can't distract ourselves forever, and at some point peeling back the layers of discontent in our lives has to happen in order for us to heal, and become truly strong men. Not just physically, but emotionally, and mentally. 

Women are outliving us by the decades because they are more robust emotionally.  It's not unusual for a widow to continue living and finding purpose in life after her husband passes.  It's also not unusual for a widower to pass shortly after his wife does.  Women have no issue talking about their emotions, and tend to support one another by expressing them.  Women tend to offer consolation to one another and do a better job of being there to stand beside each other during those moments of internal struggle.

As men, we just struggle with wrenches and plumbing.  Depression is a term we use to describe after our favorite sports team lost a game. 

I'm going to continue to assault your manly senses by helping you to understand something called your inner child.  And we all have one.  The things we learn about emotions, love, intimacy, and self expression is learned in childhood.  And it's something we continue to live with even as we become grown ass men.

As young boys, many of us have suffered from neglect, abuse, assault, abandonment, and rejection.  Often from the people we entrusted to give us security, love, and encouragement.  When we don't receive the latter, we end up working from a very fractured framework about who we are.  When that happens our self esteem and sense of self worth takes a massive hit, and we seek out increased self esteem through existential means.  Like sports achievement or sexual conquest.

Think about it; who doesn't admire the sports star who has a hottie on his arm all the time?  We as men once again perpetuate this very issue by exalting other men based on virtue of achievement, then adopt the belief system that if we just achieve more, we are worth more.  We believe we are worth more because of the admiration we receive about what we do.  And there you go.  You're not admired for who you are.  But what you did.  What you can do.

Phelps was admired by millions and millions.  It didn't save him from bouts of depression so severe he wanted to end it all.  Who was he between the times of Olympic competition?  He probably didn't know.  Competing was where he found his worth and boost in self esteem.  And much like Phelps, if you believe that achievement is what you are worth, then you're going to end up struggling with an identity crisis and depression will soon make its way into your life.

If this happens, it's imperative to find the strength to go to your support system to be honest and open about it.  If you don't have such a support system in place, then find a good therapist to open up to.  There's nothing weak about seeking help.

Now here's the rub.  Other men will indeed find strength in your ability to be vulnerable, and will gravitate towards that strength.  Don't believe me?  I write about this stuff all the time, and I get messages daily from men who tell me that my openness about my own struggles with depression and anxiety and being honest about them, helped them in some way, and made them feel safe to express their own struggles as well.

One of the strongest bonds we can create between us as brothers, is our ability to find identification with one another.  All of us live through periods of brokenness.  When another bro can look at you with sincerity, and say "I've been there bro.  I got you." it can dissolve the feelings of being completely alone in your struggles.  And can serve as the catalyst to give you the strength in knowing you can get past this.

Which leads me to my next part.

Create awesome friendships - 

In my youth, despite all the hardships I endured, I still look back on that time and understand why it was so amazing.  Not high school.  High school really sucks for everyone because it's mostly full of conditional relationships that revolve around how cool you are, or aren't.  I'm glad I didn't attend and dropped out of school after 9th grade.

I'm talking before then.  When life was incredibly simplistic.  And one of the things that made it awesome during those years was our friendships. 

Your friendships were vitally important.  From the time you got up for school, until you got home, most of your time each day was spent around said friends.  The summers were spent doing shit with those friends that often make up some of the best memories we'll ever have.

Then life and adulting sets in later, and we're overrun with bills, jobs, kids, and that shit we hate called responsibilities that suck the life right out of us.  And whether you realize it or not, you aren't spending time cultivating awesome friendships like you did in your youth.  And not doing so is a huge part of why men are suffering in depression and loneliness.

Before a bro can ever feel like he can be vulnerable with a fellow bro, it's important to bond in the way that men do from the time they were boys.

And that is by storming Castle Greyskull in the backyard with He-Man to recuse Teela from the clutches of Skeletor and his henchmen.

No but seriously, that's what we gotta do.  But an adult form of it.  It's a metaphor.  Work with me here.

Men bond and create dynamic friendships most often, through shared physical adversities.  That's why we develop such strong bonds with those we serve in the military with, go hunting with, play sports with, or lift stupid weights with.  Women bond by talking about muffin recipes and home decor.  And there's nothing wrong with that. We're just different in that way.

When is the last time you made plans with a bro to go hiking, fishing, hunting, or bike riding?  Sure, getting together at the bar to down some beers is fun too, but the fact is, those times are often filled up with groaning about the bills, and kids, and car, other adulting chores.

The point of creating bro time adventure is to unplug for a while from those very things.  To fill up more moments of our lives with bro-fists and immaturity that makes us feel young and alive again.  If we aren't taking time to disconnect from all the things that are plaguing us with worry, then worry is what we're usually filling our lives with. 

"But I work a million hours a week, and have fourteen kids, and a wife and a girlfriend, and an ex wife that set my car on fire last week and all of these other responsibilities.  It's selfish of me to take that time for myself."

Well maybe start by ditching the girlfriend if you have the wife (more on that later), and by embracing the ideology that you will be here a much shorter period of time if you don't take care of yourself, so that you can take care of those you love.

If you do have a wife, and you guys do things with friends, and have a healthy social life then you're probably doing ok.

But even if you're married or have a girlfriend, then it's still important to create some bro time.  Even if it's once a month.  Go do a Spartan race together.  Have paintball wars.  Play miniature golf.  Just make the time with some bros where you can bond and expand socially and emotionally in areas that are fulfilling.  It's from creating those bonds and within those spaces that men find the ability to open up to one another about struggles when the arise.  That's how we as men can build and strengthen our support systems.

But speaking of wives or girlfriends....

Cultivate amazing romantic relationships -

Marriage has taken a hit in recent years.  And by that I mean, men and women aren't tying the knot as often as they used to.  I could probably write a million words opining on why that is, but I won't.  Half a million will have to suffice.

What I can say is that married men live longer and healthier lives than single bros swiping on Tinder all day, trying to find that next date.  And yes, it's marriage, not cohabitation that appear to make the difference.  According to the CDC....

  • Nearly 60% of adults are married, 10.4% are separated or divorced, 6.6% are widowed, 19% are never married and 5.7% are living with a partner. Marital status varies greatly among race/ethnic groups: approximately 61 percent of white adults, 58 percent of Hispanic adults, and 38 percent of black adults are married, according to the survey.
  • Married adults are less likely than other adults to be in fair or poor health, and are less likely to suffer from health conditions such as headaches and serious psychological distress.
  • Married adults are less likely be limited in various activities, including work and other activities of daily living.
  • Married adults are less likely to smoke, drink heavily or be physically inactive. However, married men are more likely to be overweight or obese than other men.
  • Adults who live in cohabiting relationships are more likely to have health problems than married adults and more closely resemble divorced and separated adults.
  • The association between marital status and health is most striking in the youngest age group although it persists throughout the age groups studied.
So for those of you who live together, I'm sorry but it's not the same as actually getting married.  The stats bear this out over and over.  

"What does a piece of paper have to do with my health?"  

Because your brain does in fact recognize that piece of paper as a deeper level of commitment than cohabitation and it does in fact "relax", and there's less stress.  

How you "think" about the nature of your relationship does in fact have a physiological effect on you.  To me, this isn't surprising but I'm sure some first rate ass clown will want to debate it.  

So here's the science.  The University of Virginia did a study to measure physiological stress to women who were about to receive a mild electric shock.  They held the hand of their spouse, a stranger, and no one at all before each shock was delivered.  

While holding the hand of their spouse, the women had the lowest degree of physiological stress than when holding a strangers hand, or no hand at all.  The study had limitations because there were only 16 couples involved.  However it was later expanded to include couples in cohabitation together.

What was found in the follow up study showed that married couples still exhibited lower stress levels before the shock treatment, than couples who were living together.  In fact, there appeared to be no difference in the physiological response between the couples living together, and holding the hand of a stranger.  

The fact is, marriage is a socially recognized ideology and your brain knows it.  And it understands that there is a degree of commitment by your partner to be all in with you, than if someone is just living with you.  

I do understand that in some marriages you might pray to the God of Thunder for lightening bolts to strike you with such power that it would cause you to disintegrate from existence.  But in most cases, a couple got married because they believed they wanted to spend their life with this person and fill a lifetime of memories with them.   And those people did so because they made a choice to go all in with their partner.  No matter what you may say, the fact is, cohabitation means there's something being held back in terms of commitment.  And your partner's brain and physiological responses know it.  Boom.  Science.  

So it's kind of important to create an important marriage, seeing how married bros live longer and healthier lives than single bros.  And it's well beyond the scope of this article to cover the myriad of ways to make your romantic relationship better.  But there's a few things that can help.

Actually be committed - 

If you're married, or in a committed relationship, perhaps slicing off a large piece of integrity and decency in your life by not sliding into the DM's of women outside of your significant other might be a solid idea.  Maybe delete the dating apps from your phone as well.  I don't think the world is suffering from a shortage of douchebags at the moment.  Try not being one.

But allow me to offer up a real life version of this.

A few years ago I was doing a seminar and went to lunch with an attendee.  He confided in me that he was texting quite a few women outside of his girlfriend.  He minimized the texting by offering up "I just respond back with stuff like "what's up, hottie?   It's no big deal"".

I bet his girl would had felt differently. 

Rationalizing is what we do in order to suppress our consciousness.  "This is bad...but it feels good, so here's my list of excuses as to why I will continue."

He elaborated that he'd been with his girl for quite some time and that, you know, after a while it gets boring and mundane.  The same woman day in and day out.  That a little texting wasn't hurting anyone.  I wondered if his girl would have felt the same?


After listening to this I turned and said to him "what if you stopped texting all of those other women, and instead just put that energy into your girl?  Instead of texting some other girl "what's up, hottie" just text that to her instead. What do you think would happen?"

There was some mumbling on his part about my advice, and I don't remember the rest of the conversation.  I thought my bit of advice was completely lost on him.

A year later he called me to tell me what I said to him that day really hit home. That he cut out all the other women he was talking to or texting, and put his energy back into the primary relationship.  He remarked at how much her energy and attitude towards him changed when he did this.  Turns out, she was just as bored as he was.  When he started putting positive energy, words, and affection back into her, she responded in kind.

They got married and had a baby not too long after this.  Live improvement achievement unlocked.

The quality of your romantic relationships, much like your relationship with the weights, will most often be determined by the amount of effort and attention you're giving it.  There is no perfect person out there, and all relationships will come with dysfunction.  If you make a choice to lead from the front, and consistently try to work from a position of love and empathy, then the quality of that relationship (all relationships you have, really) will improve immensely.  And so will the quality and quantity of your life overall as well.

And for any ladies reading this, you're not off the hook either.  I can tell you with certainty that if you speak power and confidence into your man's life, he will become those things.  Make an effort to let him know how much you appreciate him, how handsome he is, and remind him about all the amazing qualities he has that made you fall in love with him.  Men won't often convey to women that we need to hear these things.  But we do.

Understand bids - 

John Gottman is like the Michael Jordan of relationships.  After three decades of research he can predict with about 97% accuracy what couples will divorce within a certain time span, based on characteristics and behaviors within that relationship.

One of the strongest predictors of whether or not a relationship will flourish, or get some Mortal Kombat finisher move, is how people respond to their partner's bids.

A bid is when your significant other offers you up an opportunity to be a part of something they find interesting, or are passionate about.  What you do with that bid has an enormous impact on the quality of your relationship with them.  In fact, Gottman hooked up partners to assess their state of physiological stress when together, and eventually determined that the partners with the highest degree of anxiety around the other, was related to the degree of bids they turned inwards to, or away from.

Allow me to explain.

If your lady is into wine, and asks you to go to a wine tasting event, that's a bid.

Inwards turn - "Absolutely, honey.  Let's go get wasted and have a blast!"

Outwards turn - "I hate wine.  Find someone else to do that crap."

The more inwards turns to a bid that a partner makes, the more the quality of that relationship increases.  It's a fairly simple act, but how many times have you seen someone act completely uninterested in what their partner is passionate about?  When that happens often enough, resentment will build over time.  And the quality of the relationship will take a nose dive.

Take an interest in one another when these moments arise, and watch the quality of your relationship increase exponentially.

Conclusion - 

Feeling connected socially is vital to our health and well being.  More than eating chicken breasts and broccoli.  More than adding reps and weights to your sets.  Isolation is where our souls go to wither and die.

Healthy social bonding is potentially the biggest driver behind increasing our well being.  What the hell is life without meaningful connection?  In prison they use solitary confinement as a means of extreme punishment.  Well, you're not in prison.  Stop treating yourself like you are, and develop a social life, cultivate an amazing marriage or relationship with your significant other, build a strong support system.  All proven ways to keep your heart and mind out of the dumpster and to find vitality and meaning in this one life you have.

And despite the fact that social media has the word "social" in it, it's not going to keep you company on lonely nights.  Not in a meaningful way.  No amount of likes or comments will fill the void in your life like true connection will.  Get off your phone or laptop and get out there with friends and loved ones.

Make time for it.  Your life literally depends on it.  Ask Michael Phelps.

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