Brother, you are on my mind.

Over the past 12 years, working as a clinical psychologist, I have mostly worked with men. During that time my biggest challenge has been getting men to talk about their feelings.

Why is it that men are so reluctant to talk about their feelings, yet one out of eight men will experience serious mental health issues at some point in time? More drastically, three out of four suicides are committed by men.

Stemming from the days when we were still living in caves and hunted the bush for food, our brain was wired to produce offspring and find the most suitable partner to mate with. Women looked for muscle-clad men that were fast hunters, indicating future security for her and her children. The stronger and the faster they were, the better because our brains love exaggeration. She was satisfied with the illusion that she would be saved from the saber-tooth tiger or the rival tribe member who also wanted her good genes.

Therefore, the male brain was wired to deprive itself of showing and expressing its true feelings, weaknesses and emotions. Instead, aggression and anger seem appreciated and somewhat expected. Men have learned to mask depression and “harden up” when anxiety is present. Society feeds into these stigmas and still now, in 2018, men are perceived to be successful when they flaunt a full bank account and spend hours a day in a gym.

Let me begin to explain. In the centre of our brain is the emotional brain. Sort of a brain inside a brain. Its structure, organisation and cells, even the biochemical construction, is very different from the rest of our neocortex, which is considered our thinking brain. The emotional brain can function independently from the neocortex. The emotional brain controls everything that is linked to our emotional wellbeing and, for a large part, regulates our body, heart function, blood pressure, digestive system and even our immune system. It activates you when you need to fight a rival alpha male or flee from a saber-tooth tiger. It shoots off neurotransmitters such as adrenaline, cortisol and testosterone, to name a few.

Compare our modern lifestyle with this past and you will understand why life has become so stressful. Although harsher, life then was far simpler. That’s because back then emotions were more in harmony with the norms of the animal kingdom. Prey, like us, experience fear. When a saber-tooth tiger becomes an imminent threat, the bison will quickly initiate panic mode and run for its life. If he escapes, the bison will go back to its normal calm state and eats grass or go to a pool to drink some water. The saber-tooth tiger won’t ruminate on why the bison escaped or be extremely critical of itself. It won’t start to blame or feel ashamed. Once the bison has escaped, the saber-tooth tiger will also go back to its calm state.

When we experience emotional disturbances, it is the result of a malfunctioning emotional brain. For a lot of people, this malfunctioning stems from painful past experiences. While there is likely no connection to the present day, these painful experiences can leave an indelible imprint on our emotional brain. These experiences can reappear and dominate what one feels and does, even years later.

As you can see, the emotional brain activates and controls our survival responses AND our emotional state. Now you may begin to see why it is perceived to be so complicated to be a male. In my daily practice, I often see men who present with complaints such as feeling physically exhausted and men who use substances or engage in high-risk behaviour. When further questioned, they say they are experiencing a decreased interest or pleasure in things they have always enjoyed. They have a bad sleeping pattern, they feel angry or irritable, and some simply want to withdraw. They feel less connected to their partner, children, and friends. Once we have engaged in further conversation, they often report trauma, painful experiences, broken relationships, and loss. Like everyone, their emotional brain reacts to these experiences. It sets off as if it needs to fight for its life, perceiving threats and/or danger. It is this response that a lot of men struggle to understand and communicate.

In a society where men learned from a young age that talking about feelings is for girls, it’s no big surprise that there is an unhealthy stigma and culture of ignorance among a lot of Kiwi men. It’s like the overplayed song on the radio, even though you may be sick of it, you continue to listen over and over. It’s familiar and predictable and I say it’s time for some new music. New music and new things activate our brains to carve new pathways, enhance learning potentials, and optimise the use of our full brain.

Brother, you have been on my mind for several years now. And I hear you. I would love for you to heal. Healing comes from acknowledging your inner voice and emotions. But more so, I believe men heal from a connection. I am excited to bring my expertise and experience to To Whom It May Concern. I see it is as more than just a platform and a resource. It’s a connection, one that I hope to see bringing out the best in New Zealand’s somewhat closed-off male population. To Whom It May Concern is for everyone and I hope my opening thoughts will give you some insight and that you will continue to follow our journey.

I also hope this article has given you some idea of how the emotional brain takes over from reason and how assumptions and labels hinder us from being connected to our true (emotional) self.

In my next article, I will challenge you to have a closer look in the mirror, deeply, and invite you to apply some techniques to calm the mind. Whether you think you need it or not, I believe everyone can benefit from becoming more connected to themselves.

Let’s make this a time for a change, a time for openness, and a time to soften the pain for those who continue to suffer in silence.

Ampara Bouwens

Ampara is a clinical psychologist who moved from hectic Amsterdam to enjoy life in beautiful New Zealand. She is passionate about improving well being and leaving this earth a bit better than when she arrived on it.

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