Who Says Real Men Don’t Worry?

Women don't own anxiety.

Earlier this week, our health and fitness site, Be Well Philly, ran a story about a Michigan State University study regarding anxiety in men and women. According to the findings, anxious women’s brains work harder than those of men. When hooked up to an electrode cap during a series of tasks and trials, only the women who identified as worriers or especially anxious recorded high brain activity upon making mistakes. “Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” says Jason Moser, the project’s lead investigator. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school.”

As a male who has grappled with the bear that is generalized anxiety disorder for at least three years and at most an entire lifetime, this study, and the media coverage of it, left me a bit miffed.

This is not to say that I disagreed with the carrying out of the research–I think any research on any disorder is inherently a positive thing. The suggestion in the study is that estrogen, known to be involved with releasing dopamine, might be responsible for the higher brain activity in women, thus reflecting a connection between anxiety and hormone levels, which seems plausible enough.

Still, to my knowledge, I don’t have a higher-than-reasonable amount of estrogen on hand, and I regularly experience a great amount of difficulty performing tasks because I have distracting thoughts and worries, and I assume that my brain is working in overdrive as a result. I’m more than sure that my brain is “being kind of burned out by thinking so much,” and the difficulties I’ve experienced in school—and in most other situations, for that matter—greatly outnumber the things that come easy. I struggle with anything from reading a long book to preparing for trash day because I get bogged down with worry.

I’m not trying to host a pity party or anything. I don’t pretend like I’m tough, and I’m at least moderately comfortable with my disorder. That said, when the news story reads “the brains of anxious women work much harder than those of men,” the societal impression of anxiety as a male non-issue does not change.

This is bad both for cultural understanding of anxiety disorders on the whole as well as eliminating the negative gender stereotypes surrounding them. Though twice as many women as men have an anxiety disorder, we worrisome dudes do exist, and probably in larger numbers than are actually diagnosed, due to the negative stigma the public places on guys who talk about their issues. The unfortunate truth is that a “be a man” mentality exists, and for the bearded set to worry or be afraid or unsure or indecisive is largely frowned upon. It seems reasonable to conclude that less men come forward with anxiety problems than are actually afflicted with them as a result of this “guys are tough, only women worry” misconception. I can’t even say I’m above all of this from some progressive high horse: The call I put in several days ago for a new course of outpatient treatment left me feeling embarrassed and weak, and I’ve been putting in calls like this (and feeling unmanly) on and off for three and a half years. It’s nothing new.

I keep on having the worry that I’m overreacting, simply tweaked to hear someone talking about anyone’s anxiety problem other than my own. I don’t think that’s the case here, though. When I read stories like the one from Michigan State, I fear that I have to hide my problems from the world and attempt to uphold my part of the study and worry less and man up.