Chika Okorafor Aneke
In many cultures around the world, there are expectations for men to be unbreakable – to “man up” and be tough. As a result, expressing feelings and emotions is often perceived as a sign of weakness. From the time they are little boys, the emotionally abusive “big boys don’t cry” mantra is deeply ingrained in their psyche. This expectation for men to possess the superhuman ability to tune out their feelings has caused more harm than good.
Multiple research studies have shown that stifling emotions is detrimental to one’s health. Emotions have energy that need to be expressed and to suppress them, our bodies and minds use mechanisms like holding our breath and muscular constriction. Symptoms like depression and anxiety can come from how we deal with these underlying, automatic, hard-wired survival emotions which are natural forces that should not be ignored.
According to TIME, “when the mind thwarts the flow of emotions because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts stress on the mind and the body, creating psychological distress and symptoms. Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.” Over time, these physical problems that stem from stress lead to reduced life expectancy. Given the culture of emotion suppression, it’s no wonder that men are greatly affected by this.
For instance, the average life expectancy for Nigerian men is 59 years old, which is among the lowest in Nigeria and the world. Worldwide, the average life expectancy for males is 70 years, and for women, it’s 75 years. I lost my dad at 59 years old. When I found out that he had passed away, I remember immediately thinking “stress killed him, if only he had been kinder to himself…”
Given all we know about the link between emotion suppression, stress, and the detrimental physical impact, how can men reduce stress in healthy ways? The answer is simple: through mindfulness and compassion training.
Through mindfulness and compassion training, men can get better at handling emotions in healthy ways, and coping with stress. If we equip boys with this training from a young age, the quality of life for the next generation of men will be greatly improved.
Practicing mindfulness is the first step towards emotional healing. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. It means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment through a gentle, nurturing lens.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to turn toward and acknowledge our difficult thoughts and feelings (such as inadequacy, sadness, anger, confusion) with a spirit of openness and curiosity. According to Selfcompassion.org, “Self-compassion involves responding to these difficult thoughts and feelings with kindness, sympathy and understanding so that we soothe and comfort ourselves when we’re hurting. Research has shown that self-compassion greatly enhances emotional wellbeing. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and can even help maintain healthy lifestyle habits such as diet and exercise. Being both mindful and compassionate leads to greater ease and well-being in our daily lives.”
We understand the benefits but how do we get men to participate in mindfulness and compassion training? Here are some ways to plant the seeds of compassion in boys and cultivate its growth in men.
By including mindfulness and compassion training into schools’ curriculum
Just like our children learn Mathematics, English language, sciences, and so on at school, mindfulness curriculums should also be taught. Research has shown that bullying is significantly reduced, and self-esteem is boosted when mindfulness and compassion training are part of a school’s ecosystem.
Normalising self-care for men
Often times when self-care is discussed, it is spoken about in the context of women’s needs. While this is totally fine, let’s not forget that men need self-care too! I love BMC Palliative Care’sdefinition of self-care, “The self-initiated behavior that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.” Self-care helps us process our feelings in healthy ways, thereby relieving stress.
Self-care could be taking a walk with your dog on a beautiful sunny afternoon to clear your mind. It could be sneaking in a few extra hours of sleep on weekends, thereby giving your mind a break from processing too many thoughts. It could be a good old-fashioned spa day. Basically, any healthy activities that help ease your stress.
Introducing mindfulness in men’s favourite settings
Instead of trying to get men to sign up for mindfulness and compassion training, it may be a good idea to find areas where men are already a captive audience, and teach compassion there. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this as no man is the same – each may have varying interests. For men interested in climbing the corporate ladder, mindfulness practices can be incorporated in the boardroom. For stay-at-home dads, mindfulness practices could mean interactive activities with the kids in which emotions and creativity are expressed without bias.
Berkeley reports that “Mindfulness meditation has already been incorporated into the US military’s Marine Corps. At the Quantico, Virginia base, soldiers are offered an eight-week mindfulness course in order to better deal with anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia.”
Using child-friendly media to teach boys about mindfulness practice
Some children’s games, TV shows, and movies have mindful themes that can positively impact boys. For instance, The Jedi Knights in Star Wars frequently talk about the importance of mindfulness, particularly as a way to engender restraint and compassion. Similarly, animated movies like Kung Fu Panda showcase characters that gain power as well as peace of mind through mindful practices like meditation. Positive shows like these do exist. You may just have to do a bit of research to find them.
There’s no doubt that mindfulness and compassion training can help males adequately process feelings in healthy ways, thereby reducing stress, and contributing to increased life expectancy.