To coincide with Movember, we’re continuing our awareness campaign Men’s Wellbeing Matters and throughout November, we’re sharing a series of mental health blogs written by men in order to break stigma and open up healthy and helpful conversations.
Our fifth blog, written by Chris, highlights why men often don’t talk about how they feel and how to help them. Chris is one of our regular bloggers and End Stigma Surrey Mental Health Champions. He started writing for MFT in February 2021 gradually revealing more and more about himself and his diagnosis, and overcoming his own stigma. Today he launches his own website where he shares his story and blogs in the hope to inspire others to open up and embrace their mental health journey.
“Talking, we all do it everyday. Some people will use a thousand words when one will do; others chose their words more carefully. Talk is cheap. Talk is easy. But some topics come more freely than others. When it really counts; when it really matters; talking can seem like the hardest thing to do. But it’s these conversations that can reap the most powerful benefits. Talk can, indeed, be your tonic; better than any drug a doctor can prescribe.
One of these difficult topics, particularly for men, is to talk about how we’re feeling. I know people who will go to great lengths to avoid telling you how they really feel. They’ll only give short, sharp, one-word answers and show a desire to move the conversation on. Now, I get it. There’s often a time and a place for these deeper sorts of conversations. Whenever we phone someone, or meet someone briefly in a corridor, we say ‘hi, how are you’, but in all honesty, in these situations we’re just being civil, we’re not really expecting anything more than ‘yeah, sure, fine thanks’. But sometimes it’s well worth making the time for someone.
Here’s the problem
Often, we don’t talk because we don’t want to burden someone else with our problems. Similarly if someone knows you’re going through tough times they might not open up to you because they don’t want to add to your problems – when actually from their perspective they’d be only too pleased to talk to you – to realise they’re not alone but also to share their own advice for getting through it. There’s also that everyone wants to create an impression of being ‘sorted’ and having it all together. This then actually makes it much harder if your world starts falling apart. You don’t want to admit to others that things aren’t what they were but more than that, you don’t want to admit it to yourself.
I’ve heard people say ‘oh what’s the point – talking won’t change anything’ – but change comes from inside. First, you need to understand the complex and powerful emotional thing that’s wrapped up inside you and you can only do that by trying to explain it and letting the bad energy out. However, when life is tough and you’re going through the wringer, talking can be a powerful tool to change how you feel, to process emotions and to put things into perspective. And there’s so many ways to do it. It doesn’t have to be to another person and it doesn’t have to be done verbally.
Let’s take an example. I’m the sort of person that ruminates. If you don’t know what I mean by that then let me explain. Things happen day to day as they always do and I let certain situations cycle around in my head again and again. If you do this, maybe you also verbalise it – the classic ‘talking to yourself’ scenario? It steals your peace and enjoyment of life very easily. Ultimately what you’re doing is rating points in the past or the future as more important than the present moment and you then live your life stuck there and completely miss your life in the ‘now’.
This was particularly bad at one point in my life when I was having a difficult time at work. I don’t like confrontation. Yet, I’d often find myself thinking back over a conversation that was had that day and thinking about better responses to the arguments. I’d think ‘I should have said this’ or ‘I should have said that’ and I’d keep playing out different versions of the same scene again and again in my head. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I’d start imagining new situations that could happen and then let my mind run wild cycling through what I would say if they said ‘this’ or if they said ‘that’. I’d do this all evening and sometimes also all weekend. I used to think that by doing this I’d be better prepared and it would help me get my work done – but it’s simply not true. By experimentation I found that by not thinking about work for a weekend and instead enjoying myself, when I went back to work I’d be recharged and have a fresh perspective – the answers came to me there and then much more quickly. I didn’t need to be processing it all weekend.
This was something that I found difficult to discuss with anyone, least of all with my partner. I felt embarrassed about what was cycling around in my head as often it seemed silly. Not only that, it all just seemed too difficult to explain the context, even though really it would probably only have taken a few sentences. Talking to my partner was good for putting things in to perspective and it helped me to stop worrying about it. However, my ruminating was happening a lot so I needed to find other ways of dealing with it.
1. Talk to a notepad
One of my coping mechanisms was to start journaling. Very simply, I’d write down the narrative that was cycling around in my head. Once I’d done this, something incredible happened. Once it was down on the page, carefully written out and edited to be ‘the best version of the conversation’, my brain let me stop thinking about it. My anxiety levels dropped and I was able to return to the present moment again. I was able to enjoy what I was doing now – something that my rumination had stolen from me. And the reason for this was very simple. Once I had got it ‘out’ and down on a page it was there in front of me. I didn’t need to remember it any more – because if I want to go back to it – I could just open the notes and there it was.
2. Talk to a device
But sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to write or didn’t feel like I had the time. Like for example when lying in bed and all I want to do is go to sleep but my brain won’t let me – as it’s got something spinning around again and again. For this, I started doing short videos in to my phone. I’d pause and think about what it was spinning around in my head and what I’d want to say. Then, I’d give myself no more than 3 minutes to say what was on my mind to the camera. I’d say it, then watch it back once. It would have the same effect. Now I’d stored this memory on my phone, I no longer needed to store it in my head, and I was able to go to sleep.
3. Talk to a pet
I’ve also had friends that say they talk to their pets, and this works for them. I guess doing this feels safe and unintimidating. Just like my journal page or video camera – your cat can’t answer back, but this does still provide a way for you to process those raw and powerful emotions by verbalising your thoughts and explaining them in a way you think your cat could understand.
Where I believe these techniques get their power is being able to say something, in the way you want to say it, without having to worry about somebody else’s response. That in itself is quite liberating. So in short, rationalising with yourself is fine, as long as you’re capturing it – in written or video form, or indeed to your cat if she’s listening carefully.
4. Find someone you trust
I think the difference here is that sometimes when talking to someone else we find ourselves being more guarded. We don’t want to say what’s really bothering us, at least not at first. As a ruminator, talking to someone else about what’s going on in my head creates the Russian Doll of all rumination situations: a conversation in a conversation. I’d have the original issue spinning around in my head, then before talking to someone else I’ll start another conversation in my head about what I’d say to them about the first conversation. And that second conversation would also then start spinning around again and again as I work through each and every way that person could respond to what I’m saying and then what I’d say if they said ‘this’ or said ‘that’. Who knew that simply talking to someone could become so difficult?
So this is why in so many cases we just don’t do it. It’s seems so much easier to bottle it up, and try and ignore it. But, we can only do this for so long. This illustrates the importance of being a good listener if someone does want to talk you. At first they need to get the ‘script’ off of their chest. They’ve been practising what they want to say for hours, so it’s important to let that just flow. Be open and nod encouragingly to let them say what they need to say. Only then when it feels like they’ve said what they had planned should you start responding to shape it in to a two-way conversation.
5. Try someone you don’t know
Talking to friends or loved ones can be hard, mainly as you feel like you may be judged and you don’t want to change the way they perceive you. Instead, it can be easier to speak to someone you don’t know and I think that highlights the value of other forums. For example, I go to a local walking group called Walk and Talk for Men. It’s a national group that run events all over the country. If you’re looking for information specifically about the Surrey group then check out their Instagram or Facebook page. What I like about this group is there’s no pressure to talk about anything ‘feelings’ or ‘mental health’ related, but you just know that if you want to have that sort of conversation you can and you won’t be judged. After all, everyone is there because they want to do something for the benefit of their mental health. The group changes a bit month on month so there’s always the opportunity to meet someone new.
Another avenue if you, like me, find talking to someone you don’t know a little easier are the many helplines that are available, such as the Samaritans. They can help you by being that good listener, by reframing your thoughts and helping you create some action steps for going forward. I always used to worry that these services were for other people and that I wasn’t ‘bad enough’. The trouble is, where do you set your threshold between what is just normal day-to-day stuff and actually accepting that there’s something’s not right here? And that’s a difficult call. But if you’ve been reading my story about ruminating and it’s sounding familiar, then you have my permission to give them a call and to be confident you’re not wasting their time.
6. Let your fingers do the talking
In this modern world, speaking isn’t the only way we can chat. Many helpline services have instant messaging. Notably ‘Shout’ is a free, anonymous and confidential texting service. And for some reason, we often find it easier to chat with our fingers in this less formal way.
But what if you’ve go this far – you will have tried writing it down, making a recording in to your phone or speaking to your cat; you may have tried talking to a friend, or texting someone or even with a helpline – and you’re not feeling any better? If you’re still stuck in the position when all you can do is anxiously think about the same situations again and again, then it’s time to pause and take stock. Being like this for any length of time is very bad for your mental health and if left unchecked, it could deteriorate very quickly. Not only is this stealing the current moment from you – whatever you’re doing in the now you can’t enjoy – but it is also very tiring. It doesn’t allow your mind to calm down and switch off. And the brain needs rest. If it’s constantly thinking unpleasant thoughts, it won’t be long before you get burnt out and more serious issues can arise.
7. Talk to someone who’s paid to listen
The next step may be to reach out for some professional support. But that comes with its own challenges. If you decide you do want to reach out for some support, even before doing it, I’ve always felt there’s an element of feeling like I have to accept the diagnosis before it’s given. The thought process I struggle with is that by going to the doctor, I must by definition be ill. This never seems to be an issue when going to see them about a cold or a sore throat, but for some reason it becomes a barrier if the issue is mental health related. To go to the doctors and say you’re struggling with stress, anxiety or depression means you need to first accept that it’s a problem; and that’s a very hard first step. You also need to get over any pre-conceived ideas about the sorts of people that have mental health conditions and what you think they may look like or the way in which they may behave. You must come to understand that what’s happening to you happens to a lot of other people too. It’s perfectly normal and that if you ask for help you will be listened to and you will be taken seriously.
Understanding the need to process what’s going on
If there’s one thing that you can take from this, it’s the power of talking to process your emotions. If you can succeed at doing this, it will have a big impact on improving your mental health and wellbeing. Men in particular, statistically, find this more difficult but I hope this blog has given you some ideas to help you find a way to ‘talk’ that feels safe and comfortable for you. It doesn’t always have to be to another person and it doesn’t have to be using the spoken word, so don’t let these barriers stop you from working through what’s going on and accessing any support you need.”
Want to blog for us?
Did this inspire you to share your story? If you would like to contribute to this blog series, please email Connie, our Communications Lead at firstname.lastname@example.org. The blogs can be poems, song or videos – whatever format you feel most comfortable with!