My rather unconventional conversation with @BPakFitness on The Muscle Intelligence Podcast has stirred up comments and questions, and frankly, I’m excited. Ben and I touched on several highly personal topics, including men and depression, raising boys, the failure of our healthcare system, and the role of trauma as fuel for performance. This week, I’d like to begin to answer some of your questions.
“Do men and women experience depression differently?”
To speak about brain differences in men and women is filled with landmines. Scientific literature has come to a consensus that our gendered brains fall on a spectrum, so while there are general differences in wiring, there are no specific structural differences that can be asserted as ‘strictly female’ or ‘strictly male.’ The science community uses the differential of ‘systemizing’ versus ‘empathizing,’ with men falling more toward the systemizing end of the spectrum and women toward the empathy end.
Without going into all of the details of this, a systematizing brain generally looks at things in a more organizational and mechanical way. An empathizing brain generally looks through the lens of understanding, connecting, and sharing of emotions. I want to emphasize that gender does not determine brain type. These are tricky waters to go into because stereotyping, sexism, and political stigma are very easily attached to these discussions. For a deep dive into this topic, see Simon Baron Cohen’s “The Essential Difference.”
While our structural differences may tilt us one way or another, I believe our differences are more nurture than nature. The social milieu where our girls are raised is very different from how most boys grow up. Girls, even beginning at preschool age, begin to gather in groups. They talk about feelings, social constructs, relationships, other girls and are driven to connect within that group. Since our brains are very neuroplastic during these early years, girls are more likely to develop their skills in group-oriented, verbal, and socially astute activities.
Contrast this with the early experiences of our boys. Generally, boys connect more through physical activity. They rough house, play sports, and their rise up the social ladder is directly proportional to their athletic abilities.
These early experiences teach both girls and boys to selectively dampen down their natural emotions. Our girls learn to suppress displays of aggression, even when it would serve them well in competition or athletics. They learn to keep social order using tactics like exclusion or shunning, and they learn to ‘fit in.’
By contrast, our boys learn to suppress feelings of all sorts that don’t fit with competitive, aggressive, or ‘strong’ male stereotypes. Anything involving sadness, pain, anxiety, etc., is considered weak. Beyond boy culture, it is also propagated by parents of both genders. “Big boys don’t cry.” “Suck it up; you’re tough.” These are phrases an adult patient of mine recalled hearing from adults when he was just 9 years old, confronting the death of his beloved grandfather. They’ve had a lifelong impact on him. Again generalizing, boys are conditioned to use their bodies, express things physically, and are arguably more aware of their bodies while tending to suppress the inner emotions they undoubtedly experience.
Many studies have emerged saying that depression is more prevalent in women. I disagree and strongly.
I believe that depression impacts both genders equally. Consider that the psychologists running most of these studies do not inquire about where the depression might be residing. As a result of sociocultural forces, and men’s manner of expression, men tend to deny the emotional experience of depression while experiencing them much more as physical symptoms. And so, depression in men often goes unrecognized and underreported.
For men, depression most often comes about as a result of intense and chronic stress. They will experience exhaustion, lack of motivation, fatigue, lack of recovery, weight gain, ED, and excessive alcohol consumption. These are all symptoms of stress turning into depression. Men are conditioned to drive through their pain, again with physical action, and depression does not necessarily register in a man’s brain as what it is.
Understand that a man simply experiences emotions in different ways. It is my opinion that psychiatry and psychology do not understand this and have been asking the wrong questions to arrive at their conclusions that depression is more prominent in women. Unfortunately, this adds to the stigma and taboo of men actually acknowledging their pain and seeking help.
So, do men and women experience depression differently? The occurrence of depression is equal, but the actual experience of depression is much different. Both require validation and acceptance for healing to begin.