It has long been joked about that men are stubborn about asking for help. But what about when a person isn’t aware of the need for help, and it could be the difference between life and death? Jason Erickson takes a look at the male response to trauma.
Asking for driving directions, following instruction manuals, and fixing problems around the house without calling a professional are certainly things that carry with them an “I’ve got this” type of mentality for men. That’s fine, right? But, what about when a person isn’t aware of the need for help? What about if the consequence of not getting help is more than just a frustrated wife and a leaky faucet? What if it’s the difference between life and death? The adverse effects and consequences of untreated trauma may not be as obvious as situations which warrant a call to a plumber or an electrician.
Men, I know you want to be strong in these difficult situations, and I know you want to be the “rock” for yourself and your loved ones, and that you want to stand up and fight back when you face adversity. Even in the face of danger you may respond by getting involved or trying to take control of a situation, by helping others or doing anything you can – maybe even sacrificing your own safety – for the benefit of others. After all, these people need you, right? And they depend on you for strength, too. That certainly is commendable, and some studies show that facing traumatic events and responding with these traits may soften the long-term consequences of these situations. However, even though you may feel strong, resilient, and impenetrable in a tough situation, you’re still not immune to the physical, social, and emotional effects of trauma.
Unfortunately, statistics show that to be human is to likely suffer some type of adverse experience or trauma in your lifetime. In ongoing studies of thousands of middle-class adults, approximately 65 percent of all adults surveyed had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience in their lifetime. And, in those who had experienced at least one adverse childhood event, 87% of those experienced multiple events. Similar numbers are also reported when examining not just childhood adversity, but any exposure to trauma in a person’s lifetime. Some studies cite even as many as 81% of males having been exposed to some type of trauma during their lifetime.
What is considered to be trauma?
Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) research includes issues related to abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction. Some of these events are likely less “traumatic” than you may think, such as parents being separated or divorced, having a problem drinker or illicit substance user in the home, or having someone in the home who was mentally ill or depressed. Answering “yes” to any of these questions is an indication of an adverse childhood experience. As noted above, if you’ve experienced one of these events, there’s a strong likelihood you’ve experienced multiple events. These are not the only events that are considered trauma, however. Most of us have experienced something related to the loss of a loved one, a significant accident of some sort, divorce or relational discord, or abandonment. Not to mention things such as combat, natural disasters, or workplace violence. Really, anything that brings up some type of emotional disturbance as you look back over your life can be considered a trauma.
Results of the ACE studies are staggering, indicating that the presence of chronic physical, mental, and behavioral disorders is significantly higher in any individuals who have experienced any adverse childhood experiences. One of the most extreme findings was that the chances of someone developing an intravenous drug use disorder was 4,600% higher in males who had experienced six adverse childhood experiences. Although not quite as dramatic, there are consistently direct links between the number of adverse events experienced and the increased prevalence of smoking, alcoholism, COPD, liver disease, early teenage sexual activity and pregnancy/fatherhood, decreased work performance, serious financial problems, chronic depression, and number of suicide attempts.
Consistently, females tend to “internalize” following experiences of trauma, meaning emotions are kept inside, and the way she copes with trauma may not be externally evident. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD may result from long-term effects of internalization. Males, on the other hand, consistently show more of a tendency to “externalize” following these same experiences, meaning emotions are more externally evident, and the way he copes with trauma is more practically observed in issues related to conduct, anger, aggression, belligerence, oppositional or anti-social behaviors, and substance use.
How is PTSD diagnosed?
The criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD include:
- Exposure to an event or repeated events in which there was actual or threatened death, risk of serious injury or sexual violence;
- Experiencing intrusive symptoms including distressing memories, dreams, and flashbacks which trigger psychological distress and physiological reactions;
- Persistent avoidance of thoughts, feelings, places, or people that evoke memories of the event;
- Negative mood and thoughts associated with the event such as inability to remember aspects of the event, feeling blame or other negative beliefs, chronic fear, horror, anger, shame, or guilt, along with the inability to experience positive emotions;
- Changes in reactivity associated with the event, such as irritability, self-destructive behavior, sleep problems, concentration problems;
- These symptoms last for more than one month following the event.
If you do not seem to meet all of these diagnostic criteria, that does not mean the effects of trauma has escaped you. If you or others around you are noticing behaviors that may even remotely look like the common male responses to trauma, please seek professional assistance. If you’ve had lingering problems with substance use, long-term unhappiness or irritability, relationship problems and feelings of being disconnected from others, or chronic, unexplained issues related to physical health, please seek assistance. These may be signs of the long-term effect of untreated trauma. There are professionals who work every day with individuals who can help to determine the presence and severity of emotions related to traumas, and who can help to direct any needed treatment.
Remember, the “I’ve got this” mentality that saves you money and helps you fix your toilet may not be as healthy of an attitude when your physical and emotional health, and potentially your life is on the line.
Jason Erickson is a licensed master level psychologist at Prairie View, Inc.’s east Wichita office.