When negativity is the elephant in the room

by Helen Clare

Do you battle feeling negative? How do you recognise when negative behaviour is pointing to a problem greater than just a crappy day?

Maybe there’s something in particular that gives you the grumps.

Or you might feel negative about most things. Life in general.

It’s possible you’re interested in this topic because you’re living with it. It’s the elephant in the room.

A partner, friend or relative seems to be stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and let’s face it, being around someone who’s constantly negative isn’t much fun.

Perhaps that negative person is actually you, even if you’d prefer not to admit it.

We spoke to two leading Australian male health experts and asked how to identify negativity versus a crappy day, as heard on The Shed Wireless Episode 7 (season 2).

*Please note this article is not intended as personal medical advice and you should always speak to your doctor about your specific symptoms. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis please call  Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine on 1300 997 899

It’s important to recognise that all of us have a crappy day from time to time, regardless of our gender.

Sometimes that’s for a good reason, sometimes no apparent reason.

“Being sad and sometimes terribly sad is part of life” says Professor Suzanne Chambers AO who is the Dean of Health at the University of Technology Sydney.

“If we didn’t have changes in the way we’re feeling, we’re not really paying any attention to what’s going on around us,” says Suzanne.

She says the topic of male mental health is “dear to my heart” and there are some commonly held beliefs about male stoicism she wishes to challenge (more on that soon).

So, let’s set the record straight: Suzanne says we’re not supposed to be happy all the time and it’s not realistic.

And sometimes we can legitimately feel sad for no reason that we’re aware of.

The reason you’re feeling negative or sad might simply be something happening in your life.  For example, the death of a partner or someone close to you. The loss of a friendship or an argument.

You might feel sad because of things you see happening around you in your community, environment or family. Perhaps because of the current pandemic and the loss of your usual routine.

“It would be really weird if people weren’t feeling unsettled and anxious about what’s happening in the world right now because the world is changed in a way that we never could have imagined,” says Suzanne.

“It’s important to understand that men often experience and express feeling sad differently than do women.

“And men have their own particular ways of approaching the world — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says.

“Sometimes men will tend to avoid expressing difficulties when that happens and be more stoic.”

“And that’s perfectly fine except if it gets to the point where you’re feeling down too much, feeling hopeless or helpless about the future. Then that’s a problem.”

Suzanne says she has a strong reaction to the presumption that everyone in society should behave in a certain way.

“There’s nothing wrong with being stoic and there’s nothing wrong with being self-resilient and all of those things we think of as being traditional male values,” she says.

“They’re only a problem for you when they get in the way of you looking for help when you might need it.”

She argues that self-reliance is a real strength and the same can be true for stoicism.

“It’s important to see these qualities in a positive way and then see how we can flip them around so that self-reliance can actually mean: when I think I’m in trouble and I need some help I’m going to go and get it for myself.

“Mateship can mean: when I think something’s getting me getting down I’m gonna talk to one of my trusted mates about it,” says Suzanne.

“But doing it in a way that’s comfortable for you.”

Healthy Male’s Medical Director Professor Rob McLachlan AM agrees wholeheartedly.

“Part of being self-reliant includes that understanding of when you need to ask for help,” says Rob.

“It’s not self-reliance to the exclusion of asking for help.

“It’s recognising that the depth or length of your negative mood is outside that which you can cope with yourself.

“I think that’s very important. You can be self-reliant but you can still ask for help when you need it,” he says.

So, how do you work out what’s just a crappy day versus something more serious?

The answer to that is, if feeling really sad or really angry or really downhearted goes on too long.

That’s when it starts to become a problem. Or if you’re feeling hopeless or helpless about the future for a long time, or having thoughts of self-harm.

“That’s when you need to go ‘ok, I’m going to take control of this situation myself’…and usually the GP is a great first base for that,” suggests Suzanne.

She recommends asking your GP ‘what do you think?’

Then make an action plan you can move forward with and do something about it.

Can squashing down or burying your feelings make things worse?

Absolutely, according to our two experts.

Both agree that if you push something down (emotionally) and suppress it and avoid it, you may actually make it stronger in the end.

Sometimes there are physically symptoms that might go along with that too. For example feeling tired or anxious, and stomach upsets.

Also consider behaviours like withdrawing or drinking more, which might feel like they’re alleviating the problem in the short term.

Then you wake up the next morning, and you’re still not feeling great and those negative thoughts still keep resurfacing.

“They all connect with each other,” says Suzanne.

Have you ever tried not to picture an elephant?

This is an experiment to highlight how easy it is to become trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts.

Picture an elephant. Now, DO NOT think about the elephant.

Is it working?

“You can’t stop thinking about the elephant once you tell yourself not to do it,” says Suzanne.

“And it’s true about negative thoughts. You get a negative thought about something unrealistic that’s potentially never going to happen so you try and avoid thinking about it, and that just makes that thought even stronger.

“So there are strategies you can learn…to stop yourself ruminating on these things and just learn to sit with them and understand that in the end, it’s just a thought.”

You can listen to the full interview on Episode 7 (Season 2) of The Shed Wireless. Just click on the link and hit play — you’ll find Ask the Doc towards the end of the episode.

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