Stress and the man

19 Feb

Leah Morrigan:

From the archives… The differences between the sexes and how they deal with the physical, emotional, and mental effects of stress.

Originally posted on In the Key of He:

stressWe all experience stress in our lives, but we don’t talk about it enough – men especially – but there is growing interest in the topic – upon this writing, “men and stress” catches 239,000,000 Google results.

I spoke to a couple of stress experts through the Distress Centres Ontario (DCO),  a provincial organization that provides support services to lonely, depressed, and suicidal people, often via a 24-hour crisis line.

DCO presented “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Stress”, focusing on how to shift from a stress reaction to a support response in our body.

Asha Croggan and Arianne Richeson co-presented the learning event – Asha provides support to crisis lines and suicide networks across Canada and is the Provincial Programs Manager for Suicide and Mental Health Networks, and Arianne Richeson is the Manager of Educational Service at Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region. Below are some…

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Winter skin care

5 Feb
rhino hide

If your skin feels like rhino hide, it’s time to exfoliate!

Winter. The absolute worst time for our skin when moisture is sucked out by dry air and dry heat. By February, you might feel dried out, rough, and scaly–not exactly a nice feeling.

Gents, let’s keep it simple. I understand that some of you don’t pay attention to your skin in the winter (and sometimes the summer) because you think it may be something of a hassle, you don’t have time, or perhaps you may not be conscious of the importance of skin care. Fair enough, but know that skin is our largest organ that protects our internal organs and otherwise holds us together, so it’s wise to take care of it. When it comes to our image, skin properly taken care of will make a better impression on people and it will also feel better to you. Here are three easy ways for a fella to avoid dry and possibly uncomfortable skin during the winter.

1. Avoid hot waterhot water

Though a hot shower will feel good if you’ve got a chill in your bones, it may wreak havoc on your skin. Hot water dries the skin and seems to tighten it. If you have sensitive skin, too-hot a shower can make your whole body turn red and splotchy, and skin can take hours to get back to its normal colour. If you insist on hot showers but don’t like the resulting redness, take your shower at night to allow your skin to return to its natural colour.

The hot water concept applies to other tasks besides bathing. Sensitive types should wear rubber gloves when washing the dishes because wet, sensitive hands can make your life miserable. Once the red, raw, and sometimes scaly patches appear on your knuckles, you could be in for split skin which hurts and opens you to a possible invasion of unwelcome foreign bodies. If you have to wash the dishes with bare hands, dry them thoroughly and apply a hand cream afterward to combat the hot water reaction.

loofah

A loofah is a natural way to exfoliate.

2. Exfoliate

For those of you who don’t know, to exfoliate is to slough off dead skin cells that sit on the surface of our skin, which makes the skin feel dry and look dull. Depending on what colour your skin is, these dead skin cells, depleted of melanin (the cell protein that gives us colour), turns to a pale dust on the skin’s surface. Dead skin cells are more obvious if you have darker skin.

Face: Exfoliation may help you to look younger as you clear away the layers of spent, grey cells that make facial lines appear deeper. There are many types of facial exfoliators that can come in the form of pre-shave scrubs or facial scrubs. When you find one you like, try gently rolling a bit around your eyes to reduce the appearance of deep wrinkles and crow’s feet. Use an eye cream to follow if you have one.

Use exfoliants with natural spheres like rice flour granules, otherwise the small plastic spheres found in commercial cosmetic and grooming exfoliant products pollute lakes and are consumed by marine life which eventually kills them. Know that there is a social and environmental responsibility to everything you purchase.

Body: An easy way to lose the spent cells en masse is to wash with a natural loofah, exfoliating gloves from a drug store, or an exfoliating towel available at the Body Shop. Use soap or a shower gel on your chosen scrubbing tool and use all over your body, but take care to avoid scraping your sensitive man parts (you’ll know when to stop!). No need to press the material against the skin, just use with the same pressure that you would with a wash cloth and presto! your skin is fresh and smooth again! Keep your fresh skin supple with the next step in our simple program: moisturizing.

3. Moisturizecoconut

Bodies feel wonderful and smooth after an exfoliation. Once you’ve done away with the dull cells, follow-up with a natural moisturizer, as the fresh skin is now ready to absorb moisture. Some guys are not into moisturizing, I know, but it makes a huge difference in the winter. A nice (and hopefully natural) moisturizer will soothe your skin and make it less dry, less itchy, and more comfortable. A good one is coconut oil, available at most alternative health stores, or a coco butter option (smells good too!).

I admit to having a natural product bias. It isn’t just because my skin is sensitive; I don’t like the idea of having petrochemicals seep into my system via commercial moisturizers, and I can’t stand the idea of grooming companies testing products on animals. (I don’t think anyone willingly wants a dog or a bunny injected or swabbed with potentially painful or maiming chemicals, so it’s a good idea to check behind the scenes and educate yourself – for a health, environment, and social rating of personal care products, check out the Good Guide for product ratings and decide for yourself.) Make a point of reading product labels and avoid any with parabens, alcohol, or artificial fragrance and colour (almost all products at drug stores contain all or of some of these ingredients). Instead, have a look in a neighbourhood health food store and ask about natural products–the staff is usually knowledgeable about these things.

It doesn’t actually take long to fix up and maintain your skin in winter and taking care of your skin doesn’t make you any less of a man.  I think that men who groom well and take care of themselves are much more appealing and nicer to be around than men who turn away from self-care and leave a trail of dead skin cell dust behind them.

Taking care of one’s self and one’s skin is a reflection of our self-esteem, gents, and it is definitely worth the time. You and your skin are worth the bother.

Spread ‘em. Actually, don’t

8 Jan

you balls are not that bigInspired by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the move to ban “man-spreading”–men who sit on public transit with their knees spread so far apart that they actually take up seats next to them–has reached Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission, and it’s caused some interesting gender chatter.

Globe and Mail article on the topic mentions the Canadian Association for Equality (CAE) who started a petition to stop the ban on man-spreading. The group says, “This sets a very bad precedent as men opening their legs is something we have to do due to our biology. It’s physically painful for men to close their legs and we cannot be expected to do so, and it’s also a biological necessity for us to do so.”

According to the petition, a ban on spreading one’s legs would “be a big blow to men’s rights.” Men’s rights to do what? Take up unnecessary space on public transit? To be discourteous to others?

Mike Wood, a volunteer advocacy officer with CAE argues that men should be able to take up as much space as women who board buses with strollers, but he fails to understand that when women bring strollers onto a bus, there is another person in the stroller, and the baby in the stroller needs space, just like any other person.

I wouldn’t agree that testicles have any independent rights and need their own seat on the subway.

 In Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behaviour, James Dabbs describes “panache” as a manner that seeks to get the attention and respect of others. “A person with panache,” he writes, “scores points by looking dominant. Bluffing often works just as well as fighting when it comes to getting attention and respect. Male animals bristle, puff, strut, preen, spread their tail feathers, control space, intimidate their opponents, and show off to get their way and impress the opposite sex.”

Is this not what man-spreading is? Puffing up to take up more space and display some form of power and superiority? Why else would a man would choose to sit in on public transit in a way that exposes his most vulnerable body parts, open to potential contact with knees and parcels at the sudden jolt of an expected brake. If I were a man, I would protect my fragile spheres, not make them targets.

Ball room

Subway behaviour has its own etiquette and etiquette is about respecting other people and making them comfortable. Man-spreading is the opposite of this. Mr. Wood mentions men’s biology a couple of times being the reason that men need to spread. Some men will need a little extra space for their tackle than others, yes, but how much space could comfort possibly require? Are your testicles so big that you need an extra foot to accommodate them? Perhaps it’s time to change your style of underwear instead of hogging transit seating.

The image used for this post is from a hilarious site about man-spreading. YOUR BALLS ARE NOT THAT BIG seeks to out man-spreaders on the New York subway by posting pictures of the culprits (world-wide submissions are welcome). The blogger makes it clear that man-spreading is about men concerned only with display and their own comfort, not the comfort of others.

Display includes body language, the expression of our self-confidence. Individual self-confidence and self-esteem speaks through the way we move and position ourselves in space, including the way we sit. A man who sits with crossed legs looks comfortable, a man sitting with knees 6″ apart also looks comfortable, but when men sit with knees wide apart, i.e. over 12″, he’s telling the world that a) he’s desperate for attention, b) he’s painfully insecure, and c) he wants to appear virile and by spreading his knees apart so far apart, he can show off those “big balls” of his. Testosterone likes to put on a good show, as Dabbs says.

Funny thing about virility: it’s often not what it seems. Like male animals, much of the virility is false but the display can be stunning.  I had a boyfriend with a huge set of testicles that hung heavily under his pinkie-sized penis which only ejaculated prematurely, so I wouldn’t say that large testicles necessarily indicate virility. The whole puffed-up, I-have-bigger-balls-than-you-and-that-makes-me-more-masculine mentality of man-spreaders is a delusion, mere posturing.

In the animal world as Dabbs mentions, panache works to look dominant and impress the opposite sex. I cannot imagine any woman being attracted to a man who tries so hard to show he’s masculine by exposing what he thinks are mammoth testicles to prove his manhood, while simultaneously imposing himself into other people’s space.

I’m not even sure that men are aware of how much space they take up because they haven’t been challenged on it until recently. Once men are called on it however, many will acknowledge their puffed-up, space-taking wrongdoing and change their position (at least this is what happens in polite Toronto). Several times I’ve been on public transit and saw the only seat available beside a wide-kneed man,  but instead of being intimidated, I said, excuse me, and lowered my bottom into the seat (while he scowled because I’ve messed up his space). If a man’s leg is in my space, I ask him to please give me some more leg room and I’ve never had an argument. Politeness and a kind smile can do wonders for personal comfort, so I recommend it.

Now that the New York subway system’s anti-spreading campaign is on and the messages are travelling to other large cities, it’s time for men (and women who take up more space than they need to) to pay attention and be more aware of the necessity to share space in our ever-increasingly populated cities. As subway posters in Philadelphia say, “Dude It’s Rude… Two Seats — Really?”

PS – Have a look at this site that features Japanese subway posters from the 1970s and 80s that even back then, tried to make people aware of how man-spreading negatively affects people.

 

Human behaviour, Desmond Morris, and his comb-over

25 Dec
Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris sports a deep comb-over.

Desmond Morris, the famous British zoologist who wrote The Naked Ape, put together a six-part BBC series called The Human Animal: A Personal View of the Human Species during the mid 1990s, in an attempt to examine and explain human behaviour.

During the series, he explores humans as “hunting apes”, looks at our body language, genetics, and tackles the differences of the sexes. During part 6, Beyond Survival, Dr. Morris, the brilliant zoologist that has moved the study of body language further ahead than anyone else in history, says, “Every time we go out in public, we’re making complex statements about ourselves”. Dr. Morris is absolutely right, but his statement reeks of irony because he talks about complex visual statements while wearing a wicked comb-over.

Method

Comb-overs, a ridiculous “style” that balding men create to cover their baldness was extremely popular during the 1970s, as I recall from childhood. The comb-over was so big that it was actually patented in 1977. The patent is officially 37 years old as of December 23, 2014, and was the brain-child of smooth-headed father and son team, Donald and Frank Smith. Below is the U.S. patent. Click on it to read the details about the Smith’s “invention”.

Comb-Over patent

comb-over illustrationThe patent info explains the correct way of covering your bald spot by “cross-hatching” (FIG. 6) three sections of longer hair and combing them over one another. Original illustration at right–it’s a dandy, isn’t it?

Instructions: “To begin with the subject’s hair must be allowed to grow long enough to cover the bald area, generally about 3 to 4 inches. Of course, the length of the hair will depend on the size of the bald area, for example, a person who is front to back bald, as in the illustrations of FIGS. 1, 2 and 3, will require more length than a person with a bald spot either in front or in back of the head. In addition, the particular hair style to be performed will dictate the required hair length.”

Can you imagine losing your hair and thinking that the best thing to do is to grow sections of your existing hair quite long, strategically comb it up to cover over your bald head, then paste it to your scalp or on top of existing strands with some sort of adhesive (probably hair spray) in an attempt to fool others into thinking that you still have your full head of hair? Only the wind could betray your clever ruse! It’s genius!

Just kidding.

Comb-over symbolism

“Wearing a comb-over is like sweeping your baldness under the rug; it’s still there,” says Jason Kearns of Toronto’s Kearns & Co. hair design.

Kearns began his professional life in the late 60s in swinging London, when hair, and everything else, was all about fun and free expression. He watched the music stars of the time mature and change–some of their hair left the building before they did, and grace didn’t necessarily follow. He says of an aging rock star like Robert Plant, “If the hair is long and you’ve got all of it, wear it.” Guys like David Crosby or Max Webster-era Kim Mitchell who have lost it all on top but keep the bottom long? “Cut it.”

Clumsy, fragile comb-overs are an attempt to camouflage or hide something; they may even induce suspicion. It was no surprise to hear Mr. Kearns say that men who do comb-overs have no sense of self and are probably clinging to their youth. I imagine it could be quite upsetting, even devastating for a man to lose his hair; it may be seen as the loss of youth and possibly a loss of strength, and therefore a blow to masculine identity (could all men have a Sampson complex?). But this belief is a choice.

Bald and bald alternatives

Perhaps it was the unforgettable Yul Brynner who made bald okay for the first time in the 20th century. Biography UK describes how Brynner’s bald head became his trademark: Yul Brynner

“For his role as the King of Siam [in the 1956 Academy Award-winning The King And I], Brynner shaved his head and following the success of the film, he continued to shave his head throughout his life but wore wigs for certain roles. This was an unusual and striking look for the time and became known as the Yul Brynner Look.”

While Brynner wasn’t bald, he was balding. Below left is a shot of the intense, Russian-born actor with a receding hairline; at right below, with a hair piece in his second bald role as Pharoah in The Ten Commandments. To my eye, he’s much more striking without hair.

Yul Brynner

Yul Brynner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the 50s moved into the 60s and 70s, a fully bald head was still scary to people, but someone came up to the plate and made baldness sexy. Telly Savalas rocked the bald head in the early 1970s in his hit TV show, Kojak. Unlike Brynner, Savalas didn’t shave his head for any particular role–his hair loss was well under way, as seen at left in a screen shot from season two of The Untouchables (1961), when Savalas still had some hair. Compare that to the second shot at rightwhich is one attractive than the other?

Telly Savalis

Telly Savalas in an early episode of The Untouchables.

Telly Savalas

Savalas as bald-headed NYPD Detective, Theo Kojak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So why did bald work for these two when so many other men at the time chose the comb-over? First, they’re both actors, and they’re already confident (I have read in my travels that actors and football players have the highest testosterone counts of all occupations). Second, once they took to the look, they “owned” their baldness and made it work for them. Third, they have good shaped heads that are in proportion to their bodies–this is important.

Shaving one’s head is definitely an alternative if a guy is losing his hair, but shaving your head bald isn’t for everyone. Why? Proportion. I have a small head and I notice that when I put my hair into a tight ponytail, my head looks smaller, and I look out of proportion. Men with small heads who intend to shave their lids should take heed of this; I often see (usually white) men walking around with tiny shaved heads perched above hunched shoulders, their expression embarrassed and apologetic. Just because you’re losing your hair doesn’t mean that you have to shave right down to the wood, fellas; instead leave a 1/8″ or 1/4″ of stubble to break up the visual expanse of skin, and avoid large collars and scarves that can make your head look even smaller.

Probably the most important thing around hair loss is acceptance. I discussed ways to deal with hair loss in my last post, but ultimately gentlemen, it’s all about embracing and making the best of yourself, not making an awkward attempt to hide what is gone and in the past. Jason Kearns says that baldness is a way for modern men to make their lives simple and to deal with hair loss with grace. He offers other alternatives to comb-overs and bald insecurity: “Instead of hiding your bare pate,” he says, “try to work with it and add accessories like interesting eye glasses or a neatly trimmed beard.”Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris said in the Daily Mail  in 2008 that the key to a long life is calmness. If you want a happy and long life, it’s best to relax about things you have no control over, including whether or not your hair will hold out. Don your look with grace, avoid the comb-over, and for goodness’ sake, have a sense of humour about it; it’s not the end of the world.

For a laugh, read this Cracked article: Inside the Mind of a Man With a Comb-Over.

Hair loss

10 Dec
men's hair loss

When faced with hair loss, a man’s confidence may suffer, but it doesn’t have to be this way

When the weather turns cold, my hair falls out; I think a third of it is gone by now. My hair is long and it’s everywhere: under every sleeve of every garment, laced into every towel, caught on every textured surface, and sometimes found  on my plate.

This isn’t just annoying, it causes a certain amount of stress in me because every time I wash and comb out my hair, I pull out what feels like a fistful of strands from my head and from my comb, and it’s something of a shock. Fortunately for me, I know that when the spring comes, the hair will grow back like it always does. That’s for me, a woman, but this isn’t necessarily the case for men.

While women tend to lose their hair from all over their head, men lose their hair in a pattern. According to the American Osteopathic Association, male pattern baldness affects 2 in 3 men. “Despite the fact that male pattern baldness is very common, many men who are faced with hair loss feel embarrassment and have low self-esteem.”

If the AOA is correct and 66% of men experience hair loss, one might think that a brotherhood would form to support other men who lost hair. Instead, I see sad statistics: “60 percent of all bald men are teased at some point in their lives”. Hair loss can be a self-esteem issue to the man in question and a demeaning point of ridicule. eMed Expert lists 16 ways balding can affect people–all negative and some terrible, except for one: bald men are perceived as more intelligent than haired men. However, one positive point out of 16 is not encouraging.

Factors in hair loss

male pattern hair loss

Male pattern baldness

Hair loss usually has a genetic origin, but there are many other factors that contribute to it. Male pattern hair loss happens when hair follicles become smaller and smaller and produce shorter, finer strands, until eventually, no hair grows from the follicles at all. Dr. Philip Ginsberg, a Philadelphia osteopath says that while genetics play a role in male pattern hair loss, the gene can come from either parent (not just the mother, as the myth goes), and that men with hair loss “usually have a high presence of endocrine hormones.” Male pattern hair loss comes in several forms: thinning hair, a receding hairline, hair loss at the crown of the head, and loss in an “M” shape.

“The average person loses 80-100 hair strands a day,” says Jason Kearns of Kearns & Co.hair dressing  in Toronto. He says that besides genetics, there are many factors that affect hair loss: diet, health, hair care routine, and hair tools.

Diet

Kearns’ Colour Director, Aaron O’Bryan, says that everything comes from the inside, and stresses the importance of diet. In his hair blog, he lists some beneficial foods to encourage hair retention:

  • Salmon: Rich in protein and vitamin D which are key in promoting stronger healthier hair;
  • Walnuts: Contain Biotin,vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids–all three help to save your locks;
  • Eggs: Are full of protein and have key minerals like zinc, sulphur, and iron. Iron plays a major role in hair retention as it helps cells carry the oxygen to the hair follicles;
  • Spinach: This has iron, beta carotene, folate, and vitamin C which helps keep hair healthy and scalp oils circulating.

Other dietary suggestions:

  • Gelatin strengthens hair and nails and can be found at drug stores or health food shops. Gelatin is made of boiled animal parts like bones and hooves. Gelatin rhymes with skeleton, says People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and if this doesn’t sit well with you, alternatives to animal gelatin are kosher gelatin (which may or may not contain fish as I just learned), agar, and carrageenan (a seaweed);
  • Essential fatty acids support healthy hair and are found in walnuts, flax seeds, fish, and avocado;
  • Biotin encourages hair and scalp health and is found in nuts, brown rice, and oats;
  • Silica is a natural compound that contains biotin and helps maintain and repair connective tissue, collagen, and promotes bone and wound healing. It is recommended for clear skin and healthy hair. Silica is found in leafy greens, cucumbers, whole grains, beets, and root vegetables, and can be taken in capsule form.

Read more about natural diet options here.

The right tools for the jobhair brush

Gentlemen, be honest about your hair type; its condition has nothing to do with virility. Whatever state your hair is in, treat it right. If it’s fragile (i.e. brittle or thin), be gentle with it and use the right tools for it (i.e. shampoos for fine, thin hair, and a suitable brush for your hair type), if it’s oily, use shampoo for oily hair, if it’s dry, use a shampoo for dry hair, etc.

Kearns suggests to speak to your stylist about the type of brush to use for your type of hair, and keep it clean. Cleaning your brush may seem daunting, but Kearns offers a tip: use dishwashing soap on the brush and rub another brush into it; the hair, dried styling product, and dandruff will come right out.

Brushes with too-close bristles will pull at the hair and pull more strands out. Like a wide-toothed comb, a wide bristle brush is best for wet hair because it won’t snag the weakened strands.

Shampoo

O’Bryan recommends sulphate-free shampoos because sulphates can dry out the hair and scalp. One of his favourites is  Bain Stimuliste in the Kerastase range for thinning hair “to make it look more fabulous and full”. For the more naturally minded, he recommends shampoos that contain biotin like Mill Creek Biotin Shampoo that gives thicker, fuller hair.

He says that regular cleansing is important to keep pores and follicles clean and open for hair growth. In the shower, massage the shampoo into the scalp to increase blood circulation and encourage hair growth. Scalp massages aren’t only for the shower–you can do it yourself while you watch TV or listen to music. A rush of blood to the scalp feels great–dig your fingers right in.

Styling recommendations

Blow-drying your hair can really damage the hair and scalp. Stylists recommend to keep blow-drying to a minimum and air-dry hair if possible. If you do blow dry, keep the heat on medium so as not to damage the hair.

Chemical options

O’Bryan  recommends Rogaine for men (there is also a Rogaine for women, so buy the right one), a foam to be used on hair twice a day. However, as Kearns says, it can be “a very expensive addiction” (i.e. over $100 each month), and  if a man stops using Rogaine, whatever hair he gained during the time he used it will fall out once he stops.

Like Rogaine, O’Bryan suggests Finasteride/Proscar for genetically-inherited hair loss. This drug is taken orally and the treatment provides about a thirty percent improvement after six months of use. Like Rogaine, Finasteride only works as long as the drug is taken. If this option for you, gents, learn from O’Bryan’s experience: “I absolutely noticed a major difference with this tablet which was way more affordable than other options, but I was one of those unlucky ones who lost his sex drive–definitely not worth the risk in my book–but only a small percentage of men suffer from this.”

Permanent solutions 

For those of you who can afford it and want to do something permanent about your hair loss, there are options like hair plugs and transplants, but these are expensive (i.e. several thousand dollars) and may not be feasible for everyone.

Wigs and hair pieces are not popular with the stylists (nor image consultants like me). Hair pieces are not frivolous accessories like a bright pair of socks or a cool man bag to go with different outfits; when people see you, they assume your hair is real, so if you have a full head of hair one day and a bare pate the next, this is quite a shock to people. Some may even consider it dishonest.

Jason Kearns isn’t so hung up on proactive hair loss measures. As a man who has lost most of his hair by now, he stands by the idea of aging gracefully and owning the fact that your hair is gone. “The consolation for men who lose their hair,” he says, “is that he’ll never have to go through it again.”

Watch the Sirius XM video of Kearns and O’Bryan on hair loss here.

Terry Crews: What Makes A Man 2014

27 Nov

I was lucky enough to attend the What Makes A Man (#wmam2014) conference in Toronto this week. Thewhat makes a man 2014 two-day conference was stuffed with speakers and presentations discussing the state of masculinity, road maps to manhood, and ending violence against women. There were some excellent discussions and ideas presented by writers such as Rachel Giese and Junior Burchell, a panel on mental health and masculinity, and fantastic closing session with TV actor (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Everybody Hates Chris, Who Wants To Be A Millionare?) , former NFL player, and the Old Spice guy, Terry Crews.

Journalist and TV personality, Nam Kiwanuka, discussed manhood with Crews who spoke very freely about his childhood when he witnessed his father’s violence toward his mother, his anger, his terrible behaviour to his wife and family, and his porn addiction. Now Terry Crews is a man redeemed; he has seen the toxic  masculine code turn him and many other men into a stoic, angry, and aggressive men,and he recognizes how destructive this attitude was to his family. Mr. Crews made no move to hide his tears when he described the pain and the shame of mentally and emotionally abusing his daughter, and the relief that never came the day he beat his father out of revenge for the abuse given to his mother.

As I sat in the third row with tears in my eyes, what I saw before me was not a big, powerful football player or an American TV star. I saw a human being. Terry Crews is a real and grounded man who expresses himself naturally and believes that when men show their true feelings, they display strength, not weakness.

I want you to watch a few minutes of Terry Crews speaking to the Huffington Post. Here, he gives his views on anger, the NFL, Ray Rice, and domestic violence; the toxic mindset of hypermasculinity that teaches men that they are of more worth than women, and his strong belief in gender equality. I’d like to thank Terry for his courage and his inspiration, and bringing gender and masculine violence into the light.

Testosterone spikes this season

13 Nov

Ah, the autumn! Crisp air, glorious colours,  the delicious harvest, and look out - the peak of your annual testosterone levels.

More than any other season, the fall seems to have the most birthdays, doesn’t it? A September-born friend of mine jokes about being a “Christmas Party Baby”, but it turns out that there is more to it than a slap, tickle, and one too many cups of holiday cheer.

“Testosterone levels and sperm counts are highest in late fall and early winter… the peak times for human births in the Northern Hemisphere is around August or September – 9 months after the high testosterone levels of the preceeding fall.” (Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior).

According to Jed Diamond in The Irritable Male Syndrome,  testosterone levels cycle throughout the year: “Studies conducted in the US, France, Australia found that men secrete their highest levels of sex hormones in October and their lowest levels in April.”

The irritable male syndrome is characterized by a “state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and a loss of male identity.”  Diamond claims that there is a seasonal aspect to the irritable male syndrome that makes men “more irritable when days shorten and there is less light. The decline in testosterone between October and April may contribute to this irritability.”

When I read these two books a few years ago, I was left wondering why it’s taken us so long to start examining men like we do women. As I research further, I have found that male hormonal swings may be more powerful and more prevalent than female hormonal fluctuations, and yet women have been pinned as the changeable, screaming, crying, mood-and sometimes axe-swinging slaves to their monthly hormone changes.

Not only does a man’s testosterone level change throughout the year, it is constantly changing all day and every day – when men go to sleep, testosterone is on the rise hour by hour until its peak upon waking in the morning (if you don’t believe me, gentlemen, think about what you wake up with every day). By the afternoon, the hormone levels off, begins its decline, and by late afternoon, testosterone is at its lowest level – when men are said to be at their highest point of irritability.

Did you know?

  • Testosterone rises in men when they win a competition and falls when they lose (this seems to be the case whether the competition is direct or observed);
  • Testosterone tends to decrease talking and socializing – unless sports or sex are present;
  • Men higher in testosterone tend to be dissatisfied in marriage;
  • Men lower in testosterone tend to have more convincing smiles.

We’re only starting to recognize the complexity of men and the role of testosterone is fascinating, to me at least, in the way it motivates male thinking and behaviour; I think it’s important that people understand this and give a guy the benefit of the doubt because believe it or not, there are some things that men cannot necessarily control.

So fellas, before I end this week’s post, I want to tell you that because your testosterone is rising to peak right now and at any moment you could be at your most virile, I want to remind you to keep yourselves protected to prevent any surprises next fall.

Recommended reading: Effects of Testosterone On The Body

PTSD and gendered mental health

30 Oct

Throughout this post-traumatic stress disorder series, we have seen massive misunderstandings about the illness and mental health in general, lack of funding yin yangfor proper support and care for those suffering, and alternative methods of treatment. But no matter what angle I look at PTSD and the way it affects men, it seems to boil down to a concept that is, as far as I’m concerned, the root of many social problems: disregard of the feminine and the reluctance of men to ask for help when they need it.

When I interviewed Kent Laidlaw, 25-year police force veteran, we had a fascinating discussion about PTSD, and he came out with a bomb. He said that while he was on the force during the 1990s, the popular and accepted view of PTSD was understood to be a “man’s” disorder, while women suffered from depression.

This is of course as ridiculous as it is untrue. Anyone can have PTSD and anyone can suffer from depression. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a gender-related mental illness, but there are certainly gender-related beliefs around mental health.

“We assign a gender to human traits like emotional intelligence, and then “feminize” the act of asking for help, stigmatizing men who express they are hurting and need support,” says Jeff Perera, Community Engagement Manager for White Ribbon Campaign.

With associations like this, is it any wonder that men are terrified to show anything remotely suggesting that they are anything less than what is expected?

Socialized masculine stereotypes dictate that men are expected to know, to be in control of any situation, and to be self-reliant. With all of that real or imagined expectation, there is little room for their true selves. Constructed gender beliefs rob men of their authenticity and their naturalness, and this is alarming to me. I think it’s clear that men aren’t women, so it seems very strange to me that men insist on fighting tooth and nail to prove to the world that they aren’t women, even if it means sacrificing their quality of life and their health.

Bullsh*t gender expectations

Logic says that when we experience physical trouble, we seek medical help. Researchers now see PTSD as brain damage and this should warrant medical attention. Between the heart and the brain, the human body cannot function, so why wouldn’t someone seek medical help for a damaged brain, and how is it different from say, a broken leg or a malignant tumour?

In Why Men Won’t Ask For Help, Peter Griffiths says that “men can fall too easily into the “willpower” trap, and ignore available help at their peril. The wards and hospitals are full of men who refuse to go to the doctor when they have physical symptoms and who seem to prefer to pay the price rather than go for help.” How many of you can come up with an example of a man putting himself at risk because of this masculine code? I know a man who waited until he peed blood before going to a doctor after an excruciatingly painful sports injury.

As a society, we’re not going to get very far if we frown upon men going for help when they need it. It’s ridiculous and I believe, abusive towards men.

Masculine emotion and why men have trouble asking for help

Socially, we look through masculine eyes and make masculine judgements about the world around us. This distorted view not only disregards the feminine but promotes anxiety and violence in men who constantly try to prove themselves as men, and not women. Humans have dual nature and the feminine, like the masculine, exists within us all, but many men insist on fighting the impossible fight against this part of themselves.

While girls are socialized to be emotional and nurturing, it’s fine when they ask for help when it’s needed. However, boys are taught that emotions aren’t becoming to their gender to the degree that they may not even be able to recognize their feelings and thus, they cannot identify or understand them, let alone express them in a healthy manner. But whether or not the emotions are understood, they still exist, and attempting to deny them and take on the world can be devastating to a man and other people in his life.

“In many men’s minds,” Griffiths says, “if a man can’t handle everything, then he must be a failure. And if that’s the case, he feels embarrassed and afraid about others, especially other men, finding out he is “not a man”.”

The “grave” admittance of vulnerability and of relinquishing control is, for some men, an uncomfortable, if not, terrifying idea. Take the innocuous act of  asking for directions, for example. In Nick Collins’ Telegraph article, Men refuse to ask for directions out of “blind panic”,  he says that “while women are more happy to use all available resources to help them reach a goal, men will rigidly stick to their original “system”… even though it has clearly led them astray.”

He says that when confronting the idea that their system doesn’t work, it makes men flustered and causes them to do sometimes reckless things to avoid the reality of the situation/failure. Griffiths agrees, and says that men don’t like to admit or even recognize when they feel helpless, and can feel lessened at the thought of going to someone else who is better equipped to help solve their problem.

The social negativity around PTSD and mental illness in general keeps men away from getting help, an this is can be painful, devastating, and extremely damaging. Emma Watson, during her United Nations address this fall, drew attention to this idea as she summarized social problems that stem from society’s treatment of men: “We don’t often talk about men and gender stereotypes… but I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 20 and 49… I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”

Permission to be vulnerable

Why has the gender that gave us the Sistine Chapel brought us to the edge of cosmocide? Why have the best and the brightest exercised their intelligence, imagination, and energy and managed only to create a world where starvation and warfare are more common than they were in Neolithic times? Why has the history of what we dare to call “progress” been marked by an increase in human suffering?

-Sam Keene, Fire In the Belly

Emma Watson says “When [men are] are free, things will change for women out of natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive…[and] strong.

“It is time when we all perceive gender as a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining ourselves by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer… Men should have permission to be vulnerable and human, to reclaim those parts of themselves they’ve abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

We must do a collective about-face around our beliefs of men and allow them to ask for help when they need it, receive it, and heal. Women are not outside of social conditioning and are just as much a part of this equation as men are. Women have to give men the space and the respect to reach out for help, support men as they strive to be better people, and allow them to be vulnerable. I for one, feel a great privilege when a man cries in front of me because this is the man at his most honest.

When we stop propagating a violent and angry culture and let go of  masculine expectations, when we stop expecting men to be something they are naturally not, when we get over the idea of believing that anything feminine is weak, then change will occur. If we change our perspective about asking for help and consider it a strength and a strategy to utilize everything at our disposal to reach our goal, change will occur. We do this every day in business, so why not for ourselves?

To be concerned with what other people think is one thing, but to sacrifice our health for someone else’s sake is quite another. The traditional masculine stereotype exists simply because we let it, but the stereotype doesn’t serve anyone; it is an idea that we allow to exist in our minds, perhaps because we are afraid of change, or that we don’t have the imagination to think outside of the traditional box.

To make things different around mental illness and general life, all we have to do is simply change our minds.

Alternative PTSD treatments, self-healing, and self-empowerment

16 Oct

self-empowermentMore than a mental health issue, more than a first responder issue, post-traumatic stress disorder is a human issue. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious anxiety disorder often associated with the military, first responders, and sexual assault victims, but anyone who experiences trauma can be affected by it. As a one-time or accumulative anxiety disorder, PTSD can be a terribly haunting, unrelenting reality for many people.

People who are most prone to the illness are first responders because they see more trauma more often. Though there is effort on the part of first responder organizations to deal with trauma-stricken employees with early psychological support, peer support, medical attention, and hot lines, first responders continue to take their own lives. It seems that every week, we hear of another first responder suicide. Why is this happening? PTSD is a disorder in which therapies fall into a political game of what is acceptable and what is taboo, complicated by a negative social regard for mental illness, and a society that expects traumatized men to “suck it up” and get on with the job ( this topic to be further discussed in the next and final installment of this PTSD series).

PTSD is as complex as it is terrible.

Treatment of PTSD should be thought of as an investment. Until quite recently, the outlook for PTSD sufferers didn’t look so good unless years of therapy and pill-popping seemed appealing. New alternative therapies have emerged for PTSD, and the options give promise of better things to come, provided that we’re open to acknowledging that we have a problem that affects our normal function, and that we’re willing to reach out and ask for help.

The physical origins of PTSDbrain neurons

University of Toronto psychology PhD candidate, Lauren Drvaric, says “good mental health means good physical health and well-being. Poor mental health influences physical health, and we should be investing in the entire self, mind and body.”

Many professionals in psychiatric fields keep the mind and the body separate; their focus is on the mind, behaviour, and cognitive operations, with no attention paid to the body. This is curious, since the brain commands the body and the body responds to the brain; they cannot be separated.

Toronto psychotherapist, Matt Cahill, says when his clients do not verbally discuss their trauma, he picks up on the non-verbal cues. “Tears, blushing, or tremors, to name just a few,” he explains. “Sometimes a client will comment on how a part of their body feels numb or, alternately, feels constricted during a session where we are covering traumatic experience, rather than openly discuss their feelings. The body tells its own story, so I try to pay attention to everything.”

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, has been involved with PTSD research for over 30 years and believes that trauma lies in our bodies; PTSD has a physical-basis that prompts “a cascade of physiological catastrophes that affects almost every major system in the body”.

Van der Kolk believes that trauma victims are alienated from their bodies by a response from a brain structure called the amygdala, the brain’s emotional processing and feeling centre. The amygdala responds to threats and traumas with a flood of hormones that set off the “fight-or-flight” response. The physical response subsides when the threat does, but when it doesn’t, as is the case with people with PTSD, the traumatic memories play out in the patient’s mind, and the amygdala continues to produce stress hormones that sustains a heightened state of anxiety.

Dr. Frank Ochberg, MD, psychiatrist, and founder of trauma science, believes that there are possibly two types of PTSD. One type makes PTSD-affected people more prone to flashbacks, and the other causes a numb, dream-like state that cushions people from feeling the anxiety associated with PTSD. Some people experience both types. Ochberg notes a measurable change in the electrical discharge of brain cells in the grey matter of the right temporal lobe in PTSD patients, and believes that this part of the brain is responsible for traumatic flashbacks.

Traumatic brain damage causes other problems in the brain. Dr. Ochberg notes a reduction in the number of pathway cells between the limbic system (of which the amygdala is a part of) and the grey matter (the thinking part of the brain). The hippocampus, another part of the limbic system, is part of the mid-brain that looks like a long wishbone; it organizes and saves memories and associates them with feelings and actions. Studies on combat soldiers exposed to trauma show a correlation between a smaller their hippocampal volume and the tendency to develop PTSD.

Trauma is literally “all in our mind” and also of our brain; it manifests physically as damage to our brains, and brain damage, as Dr. Ochberg sees PTSD, should be considered an injury, an injury that can be healed.

PTSD therapy: the body and mind connectionyoga

In her article, A Revolutionary Approach to Treating PTSD, Jeneen Interlandi says “If there’s one thing van der Kolk is certain about, it’s that standard treatments are not working. Patients are still suffering, and so are their families. We need to do better.”

Van der Kolk says psychological trauma should be treated through the body, not the mind. He says trauma has nothing to do with cognition, but the body interpreting the world as a dangerous place. In many cases, the PTSD patient’s body was violated, and they need to find a sense of security in their own bodies. “Unfortunately,” van der Kolk says, “most psychiatrists pay no attention whatsoever to sensate experiences. They simply do not agree that it matters.”

There are no cures in the world of psychiatry; there are no physical tests for mental health disorders, and there are no drugs that can cure brain injuries. However, it turns out that there are a number of promising, albeit unconventional therapies that eclipse traditional psychotherapy, and questionable, side effect-laden psychomeds for treatment of PTSD. Some of these therapies will sound odd, even outrageous, but there are no side effects, no secret ingredients, and best of all, many of them are free that people can do themselves.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing looks bizarre but it has an excellent track record for relieving mental and emotional anguish. During the treatment, the patient holds their trauma in their mind while their eyes follow the therapist’s fingers that move back and forth before them. It sounds crazy, but according to EMDR.com, the therapy works “for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level.”

Over 10,000 therapists worldwide use EMDR therapy and millions of people have been successfully treated since its inception in 1989. In fact, EMDR is now recognized as an effective treatment for trauma by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of Defence. This unusual therapy may still have its controversies, but van der Kolk, who uses this technique himself, knows what he sees in his own patients and places his faith in the treatment. EMDR is especially useful to people with acute PTSD from isolated traumatic memories like single episode assaults and car accidents.

Yoga and massage

Yoga and massage are complimentary therapies for people with PTSD. A U.S. yoga group specifically for PTSD-affected combat veterans, Yoga Warriors,  says that yoga helps veterans “retrain” their fight-or-flight response.

“When vets confront a situation that triggers their memories,” the Yoga Warriors site says, “instead of resorting to aggression or drowning in fear, they have other options: deep breathing, for example, as a means to self-calm.”

Yoga, like dance, focuses on breath and movement and helps with body and emotional awareness, relaxation, and mental clarity. Yoga Warriors says it “allows one to safely express stored emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, sadness and grief so those feelings can be understood and integrated.”

Massage, the laying on of the hands, can help people with PTSD relax and feel safe in their bodies; massage can release toxins, and reduce scar tissue and muscle pain. According to the Canadian College of Massage, the practice may make the PTSD-affected feel more mentally balanced, and can “help to reduce mental anguish, anxiety and trauma by regulating stress hormones. Regular massage therapy reduces cortisol [the stress hormone produced by the amygdala] and stimulates the release of endorphins like serotonin and dopamine”, the hormones that make us feel good.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese treatment, is finally being taken seriously. Through the use of small needles, heat, or pressure on points of the body’s energy meridians, pathways that carry blood, body fluids, and Qi, or life force energy, this very effective therapy provides relief of many physical ailments, improves sleep, relieves stress, and balances the emotions. The theory is that when the body’s flow of energy is disrupted due to an injury, trauma, or an emotional disturbance, acupuncture can help to free the energy blockage and release the patient back into health. There is evidence that acupuncture can regulate brain function and modify the activity in the limbic system, where PTSD is thought to originate.

Energy psychology and Emotional Freedom Techniqueenergy

The energy meridians acupuncture is based on is the root of energy psychology, or energy medicine for the emotions, a method that helps change the way the brain processes thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Clinical psychologist and pioneer in energy medicine, David Feinstein, says tapping on accupressure points changes the neuropathways to bring about changes in the energies that underlie psychological problems, including PTSD.

Multidisciplinary doctor and healer, Dr. Adonis Makris, says that modern medicine focuses on chemistry, but energy healing has to do with the body’s electricity. Energy work is based on the body’s undeniable electrical nature. Most of us don’t often consider the body electric, but if you’ve ever been to a hospital for tests, you may have experience with the EEG, or electroencephalograph, the system that monitors your brain’s electrical activity, or the EKG, or electrocardiograph that reads the heart’s electricity.

Both energy psychology and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) use the energy meridian system to initiate healing. Carol Look, EFT master, explains energy work affecting the entire body: “Our feelings, states, moods, and levels of stress are formed by emotional responses and subsequent chemical reactions to specific events in our lives. These events and chemical reactions are stored in our cellular, physical, and emotional memories.” Her explanation explains how memories, thoughts, sights, smells, and sounds can trigger a PTSD-related flashback or sustain the anxiety related to it.

By tapping on various energy points on the skin and focusing the mind on specific problems (i.e. trauma), the brain’s electrochemistry can be shifted and the body’s energy system brought into balance, which allows the mind and body to resume their natural healing abilities. Studies show that accupoint stimulation (tapping) can reduce production of cortisol, the stress hormone, normalize brain wave patterns, and like massage, increases hormones associated with pleasure.

Gary Craig, EFT founder, says that trauma is a result of a disruption in the body’s energy system, and tapping works to neutralize the emotional charge. “I have helped hundreds of people with traumatic memories,” he says. “After using EFT, not one person – ever – has shown any interest in exploring the issue further or “getting to the bottom of it”. For them, it is completely resolved and they are gratefully relieved of its burden. People’s attitudes about the memory change almost instantly. They talk about it differently. Their words shift from fear to understanding. Their demeanour and posture evidence a dramatic shift.”

“It’s difficult for us to compute EFT because it’s so foreign to us, so unconventional,” Craig explains, “but at the same time, we’ve been conditioned to believe that medicine is the answer and doctors should not be questioned, but second opinions are always a good option.”

This energy work sounds so simple, so amazing, but this seems too easy, I hear you say. Even the pioneers of the treatment and experts in Traumatology agree.

Dr. Charles Figley is a psychologist and expert in Traumatology at the Tulane University in Florida. He says that sometimes the simplest things bring on the strongest results: taking deep breaths can calm anyone down, getting into a warm bath to relieve stress seems to be “a miracle” he says, and EFT is just as miraculous. “We don’t understand it, and it doesn’t make sense, but it works.”

Dr. Figley believes in EFT and the tapping method for trauma. He sees tapping as an alternative to the hierarchy of fear method that many PTSD treatments employ — therapies that begin at the lower level and build up to the terror, like exposure therapy which forces the client to relive their trauma over and over again in an effort to desensitize the patient. “These simple treatments reverse 50 years of psychological research and are turning the scientific community on its head in many ways.”

Gary Craig explains that there is no long, drawn out, tell-me-your-life-story feature to EFT. “There are no pills. There is no painful reliving of past traumatic events. It takes a fraction of the time typically required in conventional psychotherapy, it is often done in minutes. People simply get beyond their emotional luggage, usually permanently, and go about their lives more effectively.”

Compared to EFT, Craig says, “in general, conventional psychotherapy is among the slowest, most ineffective sciences on Earth.”

Positive Psychotherapy

When we think of psychotherapy, we may envision people who languish on couches, discussing nighttime dreams with cold, our-of-touch Freudians  who write prescriptions for mostly useless drugs for years on end. But a new and progressive psychotherapy that you’ve probably not heard of is making headway.

Positive Psychotherapy, born in the late 1960s, focuses on a client’s perception to realize the positive influences in their life instead of focusing on the negative – an all-too-common modern psychological state. This type of therapy directs a client’s attention to such things as positive character strengths, optimistic emotions, and their happiness in the present moment. Positive psychotherapy is much happier and more dynamic than conventional psychotherapies and the treatment typically lasts for weeks, not years.

Tayyab Rashid, licensed psychologist at the University of Toronto and a practitioner of Positive Psychotherapy, explains that the treatment acknowledges the client’s negative emotions, but instead of picking them apart and dwelling on them, the therapy “aims to validate these experiences, whilst gently encouraging clients to explore their effects and seek out potential positives from their difficult and traumatic experiences.”

Positive Psychotherapy has made significant gains in trauma prevention, to the point that it has made its way into a U.S. army program, Comprehensive Solider Fitness. The therapy is used in resilience training to “build mental toughness and identify signature strengths, meaning, purpose, and positive relationships, in addition to preventing pathology.”

Alternative drug therapy: MDMApills

“There’s not a single pharmacological treatment out there that has been developed specifically for PTSD,” says Dr. Alexander Neumeister, MD and psychiatrist at the New York University. “There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as an antidepressant simply do not work.”

Long-term medication places a band-aid on the wound at the core of the problem: trauma; its emotions, its energy, and its connection to mind and body. An alternative to pharmaceuticals is psychedelics. These drugs are pure and powerful, and administered under controlled conditions. MDMA, methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as ecstasy, is one of these drugs and it has long-term potential for PTSD.

MDMA increases feelings of trust, affection, and compassion for others, could make an excellent combination with psychotherapy for PTSD. Unlike most mental illness medications that are taken daily for years, pure MDMA only needs to be used a few times or less, and there is no threat of addiction to the drug.

Early studies are promising. Dr. Michael Mithoefer is the investigator in MDMA studies through MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Dr. Mithoefer has seen 90 percent of rape victim’s symptoms vanish after just one intense 8-hour session with MDMA. In another study, combat veterans, fire fighters, and police officers took MDMA and 14 out of 19 patients reported dramatic improvements to PTSD-related issues.

MAPS is the only organization in the world that funds clinical trials for MDMA-based psychotherapy, according to its website. The goal is to make MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription medicine by 2021.

Medical marijuanamarijuana

The drugs that they were giving them … they couldn’t get up in the mornings,” said Army first sergeant Gregory Westbrook. “Most of the guys weren’t the type of soldiers who had issues before Iraq or even in Iraq, but they bring them back and put them on these drugs, and they’re falling asleep in the chair. There was no way they could function, especially in a civilian job. So maybe marijuana is an alternative. (Source)

THC, tetrohydrocannibanol, the active chemical in marijuana, binds with cannabinoid receptors in the brain that affect appetite, memory, and pain. Marijuana is associated with forgetting and this is the link to PTSD that researchers are most interested in. “Forgetting well is almost as important as remembering,” says Michael Pollen, American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism, and author of Botany of Desire, an investigation of the nature of plants. “Forgetting is about editing, it’s about taking the flood of sense information coming at you, and forgetting everything but what is important.”

Pollen says that life is not about accumulating memory because memory can cripple us, and uses combat experiences in his argument. “Soldiers return from war zones traumatized by experiences that they can’t unlearn. So if you could help them unlearn that, essentially a productive kind of forgetting, with a drug or another kind of regime, it would be incredibly useful.”

Marijuana calms the mind, relieves anxiety, and promotes new thought patterns and behavioural responses. A recent Globe and Mail article reports that marijuana users may be more likely to survive a serious head injury. For people affected by PTSD, cannabis brings users into the present instead of watching the reel of never-ending traumatic scenes that keep them in their mental prison.

Medical marijuana for PTSD looks promising, but unfortunately, marijuana carries a stigma with it, even though it is legal for medical use. Sadly, the social stigma around cannabis is associated with the suicide of another first responder’s life. Just last week, RCMP Corporal Ron Francis, a PTSD sufferer and medical marijuana user, committed suicide.

Cpl. Francis was videotaped smoking pot while wearing his formal red serge, to protest the RCMP’s PTSD policy last year. “I’m trying to draw attention to the fact that the RCMP fails to have a program in place for proper [PTSD] screening for their members and proper information for their families,” he said. The National Post reported Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s condemnation of the stunt, saying it “sets a poor example for Canadians.” Francis was forced to hand over his RCMP uniform, and a year later, was dead.

If we as a society are serious in our support of people who suffer from PTSD, we must let go of old rules and laws that keep relief from those who need it most. Drug stigma is politically based and we have been conditioned to believe that illegal drugs – natural and synthetic substances associated with counter-culture — are harmful and should not be a therapy alternative. What is legal are dodgy, psychotropic medications with sometimes horrendous side-effects that may not do much to help people in dire need of effective therapies.

Through brain scan technologies, early neurological markers have emerged for PTSD. This is exciting because now that PTSD can be “seen”, it gives validation; a visual change in the brain makes it more factual, and this will move us toward a social acceptance of mental illness as something real.

Relief for PTSD sufferers may lie in unconventional therapies that don’t line the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies and are rooted in self-empowerment. We are more powerful than we think. As Dr. Makris says, “We have an incredible capacity to heal themselves in so many ways.”  

PTSD and first responders

2 Oct

“I think I’m too broken to ever be fixed.”
Text from Ken Barker, retired RCMP officer to his sister during a traumatic flashback

Barker was one of the first responders to arrive at the scene of the ambulancehorrific Manitoba Greyhound bus beheading in 2008. This summer, he ended his life. Since April 2014, Barker was one of an unprecedented number of first responders in Canada whose suicides have been linked to PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, considered an treatable anxiety disorder is a mental illness that can result from a traumatic one-time experience or accumulative trauma and stress on a personal or large scale. PTSD can bring the horrors of past traumas to life and wreak havoc in the minds and the lives of all it touches. PTSD can happen to anyone; the most vulnerable  people are rape victims.

PTSD has its roots and associations in modern warfare, and its incidence rate is highest among people who experience trauma every day – military and emergency services personnel. Symptoms include flashbacks to the traumatic event, nightmares, sleep disorders, and uncontrollable thoughts; anger, fear, distrust, personality changes, and extreme anxiety. PTSD can manifest physically as chronic pain and hypertension, and can induce self-destructive behaviour like drug and alcohol abuse, long-term addiction, and suicide. The collateral damage of PTSD is its effect on relationships, families, finances, and work and social status. It can be devastating on many levels.

PTSD in emergency services

The men and women of Canada’s public safety, military and correctional organizations witness human suffering up close and it sometimes becomes very difficult to cope with the aftermath. There is light at the end of that dark tunnel. There is help available, and we want to make sure these men and women – and their families — know where to find it.
-Heroes Are Human

Vince Savoia is the founder of Heroes Are Human and a former paramedic. His organization focuses on PTSD research, education, and training, and acts as a peer and psychological support resource for Canada’s public safety organizations personnel.

Savoia says 16 – 24 percent of emergency personnel suffer from PTSD, but he believes this is a modest number. Paramedics are faced with more trauma more often, and run a risk of PTSD two to three times higher than in any other emergency service. Kim McKinnon, Superintendent at Toronto Emergency Medical Services (EMS), says PTSD predictors for paramedics include their “involvement in a critical incident like a mass casualty event, or an organizational or environmental event such as the death of a service member in the line of duty.”

EMS personnel tend to victims of horrific scenes large and small, they resuscitate the sick, and witness death. At the same time, they form a bond with sick and injured people as they spend time talking and giving hands-on treatment. This one of the reasons why Mr. Savoia believes paramedics are the hardest hit of any emergency service.

PTSD does not discriminate. While it affects paramedics more often, PTSD afflicts 10 – 12 percent of police officers and 6 – 8 percent of fire fighters. According to a recent StatsCan report quoted in the Globe & Mail, PTSD rates among members of the Canadian Forces have nearly doubled since 2002; 1 in 6 Canadian soldiers have mental health problems after ten years in Afghanistan. And the numbers keep growing.

First responder organizations must create programs and supports for their employees, but this takes funding and resources that may or may not be available. Some emergency services have excellent support systems in place for their employees like Toronto EMS’ comprehensive suite of services for employees to proactively manage their health. With a focus on prevention, their resources include early psychological support with a staff psychologist, a peer support team, employee assistance plans, and other community resources.

Canada’s RCMP has nation-wide systems in place that utilize peer support, RCMP doctors, and chaplains. A Regina RCMP sergeant explained that the RCMP wants to make sure it’s there to listen to their officers who respond to major incidents like car crashes, deaths of children, multiple fatality incidents, shootings, and violence.

We’re fortunate that we’re finally acknowledging PTSD as a real illness with real consequences, but despite the good intentions of emergency services to their employees, the question is, are the support systems being utilized, and if not, why not?

Stigma, discrimination, penalization, and the John Wayne Syndromesuffering in silence

In the emergency services culture, there is stigma and perhaps a shame attached to being affected by trauma and asking for help. It is considered a “weakness” and it is the largest problem that first responders face because it is a deterrent to getting help.

Though more women are joining military and emergency services, men still form the majority of employees, and because they’re men, they are expected to adhere to the traditional masculine code that demands they use the “suck it up” method of dealing with harrowing trauma and stress.

Vince Savoia says that first reponders work with respect for the public who needs them, but the same respect is not offered to colleagues. “First responders who look for support are bullied by their peers and colleagues,” he says, “they are ridiculed and harassed. Mental health is viewed as a weakness, not an illness, and the expectation is that we should be able to stop it and move on.”

The mental illness stigma exists in all branches of emergency services and the armed forces. David Whitley, a paramedic who suffered his own PTSD from a terrible ambulance accident, now volunteers for a local emergency services support group that checks in with first responders who experience potentially traumatic events like shootings, suicides, crashes, and situations that involve children.

“We give [members of the group] an opportunity to talk because there is a stigma,” he told the Toronto Star. “First responders need to lower the trauma mask, and that’s scary because there are feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. But if you don’t do that it’s a precursor to mental illness, including PTSD.”

Kent Laidlaw, a retired police veteran in Burlington, Ontario, and principal of Canuckcare, a consulting service for people who deal with workplace stress and trauma, says that the systemic corruption that exists in police ranks ensures that officers who ask for help are considered “less than” and therefore a weak link in the chain. They are penalized rather than punished, a subtle difference that speaks just as loud.

New York State police veteran and police trauma and suicide researcher, Dr. John Violanti, observed in the Ontario Ombudsman’s 2012 report that the nature of the policing environment often goes against the goal of improving health: “The police culture doesn’t look favorably on people who have problems… Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you’re an officer, but you fear asking for help… you may not be considered for promotions and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away, so there is a real fear of going for help.”

 ***

Emergency service workers are very well trained but cannot be prepared for every possible situation, so perhaps masking the emotional response to what they experience is the way to cope, but unfortunately, first responders are human, and part of being human is to be emotional. To expect that anyone could not be affected by horrific and traumatic events is ridiculous, and then to believe that there is no emotional aftermath is absurd, even abusive.

The code of masculinity that demands men to be stoic, brave, and in control, subscribing to what Vince Savoia calls the “John Wayne Syndrome”: the tall, rugged, macho cowboy who can deal with any situation and stand up for justice. Savoia believes that first responders have to be this way in order to do their job, but what happens after the mission is accomplished and reality sets in?

On his very first call, a house fire, Vince Savoia lost his first patient, a two-year old child. He wanted to talk to his paramedic crew about it, but when he tried to, “the crew was very stoic –just walls.” If this code prevents men from being able to get support from the experiences of trauma in their jobs, what purpose does it serve? A culture of hyper masculinity is a hindrance more than a help; it creates broken men who can’t do the job as well as healthy men.

Saskatchewan counsellor, Peter Griffith, says that men don’t like to admit, or even recognize when they need help, to the degree that they will ignore their own health problems sometimes until it’s too late. Hospital wards, he says, “are full of men who refuse to go to the doctor when they have physical symptoms and who seem to prefer to pay the price rather than to go for help.”

Anna Baranowsky, a clinical psychologist who works with police officers in private practice, explained to the Toronto Star in 2012 that “people can recover[from PTSD], but if we see ourselves as being strong and we won’t tolerate any kind of weakness, then what we might end up doing is pushing (ourselves) until we are past the point of recovery, and that is really dangerous.”

Experts say that the stigma attached to mental health needs to change for us to get anywhere. It could be as simple as changing our perception of what it is to ask for help and equate it with responsible prevention, with the power to keep oneself healthy, capable, and strong. Putting a positive spin on the consequences of responding to a traumatic situation is much more agreeable than demeaning someone who can’t control their mental health response.

The PTSD misunderstandingshattered glass

There is a very interesting argument happening right now around PTSD. Some, like Vince Savoia, believe that PTSD is responsible for taking the lives of more than 20 first responders since the spring, but some mental health professionals like psychologist, Dr. Paulette Laidlaw, believes that PTSD has become something of a blanket diagnosis for many other problems.

While it’s true that in some cases, PTSD symptoms can worsen after an emergency service employee retires, Dr. Laidlaw wonders why is it when we hear “police suicide”, we make the automatic assumption that it is related to PTSD.

Dr. Paulette and Kent Laidlaw do not believe that first responder suicides are exclusively job-related, but are more likely a combination of many stresses including work, finances, and relationships. They say the individual’s long-term mental health should be examined and more questions asked about a first responder’s life before we slap the PTSD label on them, just because that individual happened to work in the armed forces or emergency services.

Dr. Laidlaw explains that PTSD is not as commonplace as we are led to believe. “PTSD affects only 8 percent of the population,” she says, “whereas depression affects 30 percent and anxiety touches 20 percent. We’re in murky water trying to distinguish PTSD from burnout, acute stress, trauma, grief, or clinical depression”.

We see PTSD in the news a lot and it has become something of a “trendy” disorder. Media reminders of the illness can cause people to self-diagnose via the Internet, and all hell can break loose. Dr. Laidlaw suggests that PTSD is the “sexy” disorder of the day, and with any popular disorder, like we saw with childhood ADHD, suddenly there are specialized medications and “PTSD therapists” come out of the woodwork. PTSD can only be diagnosed by registered psychologists and medical doctors.

How will change happen?fireman

“I wish I had cancer because then people would understand.”
-Veteran paramedic Ken Barker communicated to his sister shortly before taking his life

Mental illness is not something tangible, something that hurts, something that can be fixed with a cast or a bandage. It affects the brain and though it may not show on the outside, it can torment the mind from the inside.

Regard for mental health is changing, albeit slowly, but Vince Savoia believes that cultural change in PTSD acknowledgement has to come from the top down, and says that “we must respect mental wellness as an issue and stop the harassment and bullying from the bottom up. It has to be a grass-roots movement to encourage people to take responsibility about how they treat themselves and their colleagues.”

Dr. Violanti agrees:  “If I tell you that the first time you see a dead body or an abused child that it is normal to have feelings of stress, you will be better able to deal with them; exposure to this type of training inoculates you so that when it does happen, you will be better prepared. At the same time, middle and upper management in police departments need to be trained in how to accept officers who ask for help and how to make sure that officers are not afraid to ask for that help.”

This means changing the culture from one that ridicules people who need support to one that supports and embraces human vulnerability.

Dr. Jeff Morley, former RCMP officer and psychologist for Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs says “Canada needs a national mental health strategy for first responders, but the political will does not exist right now.”  He says that to change the system, we need a high-profile person to promote the cause, like Romeo Dallaire who played a big role in the beginning but retired from senate this year.

“That, or if the government clues in that the high financial cost of not doing anything (i.e. disability costs, sick time, leaves of medical absence) exceeds the cost of early intervention, education, and prevention.” He says that the RCMP spends tens of millions of dollars per year on PTSD disability claims, but asks how much they’re willing to come up with to prevent it.

The Globe & Mail reports that global estimates for antiviral drugs have run close to $10-billion since the SARS outbreak of 2002.  The authors of the original report in the British Medical Journal acknowledged that the “important benefits have been overestimated and harms under-reported”. Imagine if the Canadian government spent the same amount on long-term mental health as it spends on stockpiling useless drugs for unlikely flu epidemics. Imagine if people shrugged off the toxic masculine codes that keep men from flourishing and actually paid attention to what they need. And can you imagine the tremendous benefits of supporting the mental health of the people we depend on to take care of us?

 

The evolution of PTSD

18 Sep

Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it. – Lt. Col. David GrossmanPTSD

The media frenzy around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may make us think that it is a new disorder, but PTSD reaches back to the early part of the last century where it began to manifest during the first major European war of the 20th century.

PTSD reared its ugly head during World War 1 when it was known as “shell shock”, a disorder of psychological origin. Soldiers on both sides of this conflict suffered immeasurably from new types of weapons in trench warfare: tanks, heavy machine guns, mortars, and poison gas including mustard, nerve, and chlorine gasses which caused horrific damage to the human body. Casualties were immense but for those who survived, a curious condition began to emerge. Shell shock was the first mental health disorder associated with war and the military wasn’t sure what to make of it.

BBC’s excellent documentary on shell shock explains the confusion around the sometimes bizarre behaviour found in military troops at the time: “Soldier’s unconscious minds, so distressed by war, crippled their bodies and took them out of fighting. The military found it hard to accept such a radical theory; it undermined the theory that men could and should control their fears and emotions.”

Soldiers stricken by war trauma displayed strange behaviours never seen before. Men in the ranks suffered from body tremors, paralysis, temporary blindness or loss of speech, and the inability to walk. As a misunderstood condition, shell shock was considered contagious and the men who suffered from it were thought to threaten to their platoons. Six months into the war, 15 percent of the British army suffered from the condition. Dr. Charles Myers, a consulting neurologist to the army with an interest in the growing condition, coined the term “shell shock” in 1915, and decided that the roots of the problem were psychological. By 1916, the British War Office officially recognized shell shock as a genuine war wound.

When officers began to display their own shell shock symptoms — stammering, irritability, and loss of memory — the military realized that this psychological response to warfare was taking an enormous toll. Something had to be done.

Military hospitals were set up and experiments with various treatments began; from Freudian dream analysis to hypnotism to electric shock, some shell shock therapies were successful, others not. The biggest obstacle to dealing with shell shock was the stigma attached to it; men affected by the condition were thought of as “incurable lunatics” or cowards, and a shame was carried with the condition, a shame divided up like a class system.

The condition did not discriminate, but the military did. Men in the ranks were shell-shocked but for an affected officer, to have shell shock in his medical records was an embarrassment so instead, officers suffered from “neurasthemia”, prolonged and exhaustive exposure to war. Officers, you see, were not meant to break down; they were strong, masculine leaders who could, or were expected to control their emotions and behaviour.

Shell shock was an uncontrollable external event that affected the military men internally, but it wasn’t interpreted that way. Sadly, many men who suffered from shell shock or neurasthemia were court martialed, shot, or committed suicide.

Battle exhaustion of World War IIWW2 military man

When World War II began, the military did not learn any lessons from the First World War, and shell shock took on a new identity: “battle exhaustion” or “battle fatigue”. Soldiers in this war suffered paralysis, amnesia, trembling, sleep disorders, memory loss, fear, isolation, and hopelessness. For a sense of the vastness of psychiatric casualties during this war, 20 percent of U.S. war casualties were neuropsychiatric-based, and 25 percent of all British D-Day casualties were psychiatric.

With numbers this high, the military was forced to look for more effective treatments, and young doctors wanted more dynamic cures for their battle fatigued patients. A number of new therapies emerged: talking therapy, individual and group psychoanalysis, electric shock therapy, hypnosis, sports therapy, and art therapy.

Battle exhaustion was considered a temporary condition and military psychiatrists believed that if the soldiers simply rested, they could recover and carry on fighting. An unconventional “sleeping therapy” or “narco-analysis” consisted of psychologically affected soldiers given sodium amytal (also known as “truth serum”), a sedative that induced sleep for weeks at a time to settle anxiety and exhaustion. Drugs administered during the sleep brought soldiers around so they could briefly recall and describe their battle experiences; this was considered a “cleansing” experience without any anxiety upon waking and completing the therapy.

Psychiatrists acknowledged by 1945 that every man had his breaking point and that shock and breakdowns were inevitable, yet the stigma of psychological damage from war remained. Battle fatigue was still considered contagious and men touched by the condition were treated like criminals at army hospitals. Being afraid and showing it was something of a military suicide because the consequence was the humiliation of being labelled “LMF” — lacking in moral fibre, or otherwise cowardly, and having your rank stripped from you. The only saving grace to battle fatigue this time around was that a frightened and battle exhausted man would not be shot.

It should come as no surprise that military men were psychologically impaired because of their wartime experiences. As one World War II solider put it, “I can’t stand seeing people killed.”

 Modern warmodern soldier

Technologies and the methods of modern war have changed enormously since wars after World War II, but the psychological effects of war have not. What was once known as shell shock, battle exhaustion, and post-Vietnam syndrome has become post-traumatic stress disorder, and it is just as devastating as it has always been.

PTSD seems to be an accepted part of military life in the modern era; the tragedy of the loss of human life and the psychological effects of death and destruction is part and parcel of serving one’s country. Indeed, one in three American service people suffer or will suffer from PTSD according to an Al Jazeera report, The War Within. The news agency describes PTSD as “a ticking time bomb with a decades-long fuse — a problem whose true magnitude is difficult to determine.”

Press TV documentary, Invisible Wounds-Break Down, investigates the effects of PTSD on Afghan war vets and reports that more than 30 percent of U.S. Afghanistan veterans are psychologically damaged.  Suicide is one of PTSD’s effects and according the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 18 veterans take their own lives every day.

The true tragedy of modern war is that the response for service people who reach out for help is ridicule, bullying, humiliation, and hazing; affected personnel are expected to “suck up” their psychological trauma. It’s some kind of unwritten code of valour and it reaps a heavy toll. Cynthia Thomas, a U.S. army wife interviewed by Al Jazeera said that her husband was punished for asking for help and in the end, did not receive any. His suffering continues.

“Unless these officers are held accountable,” she says, “nothing is going to change.”

Conclusion

War as an industry, an industry we’ve been conditioned to accept as a part of our modern life. But war isn’t natural. In fact, according to U.S. military psychologist, Lt. Col. David Grossman, humans very much go against the grain of nature when they kill their own, affirming the idea that war is an act of political will.

In a TVO interview about his book, On Killing, Grossman explains that the first time someone kills another person, it at first feels exhilarating because the target has been hit and the job done, but most people will feel empathy and profound remorse and nausea when they realize what they’ve done; killing is repulsive to us.

There is a lifelong process of rationalization and acceptance [to killing], and if an individual fails at this process, the result is post-traumatic stress disorder, or some type of trauma that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Grossman says that through conditioning and desensitization, we now associate violence with pleasure and by doing this we are overcoming a powerful resistance to killing in our minds and in society. He says that combat is more about posturing more than it is about killing, and maintains that combat troops during WWII actually fired their weapons at their enemy only 15 percent of the time (he says that the vast majority of death during that war came from the fighter planes that dropped bombs), to 55 percent in Korea, to a stunning 95 percent in Vietnam. Aiming a weapon at another human being and pulling the trigger became a conditioned reaction.

By now, war, violence, and killing as seen through TV, film, and video games, takes away the horror of human suffering and turns it into entertainment. This completely counter-intuitive perception has enormous implications, and people don’t really know what is at stake.

History has seen leaders use political means to carry out their aggressive and violent motives, leaving the agents of their intentions dead, maimed, or psychologically injured. Assuming a false presumption that men, at least according to the patriarchal construct of men, could ignore their natural emotional state and freely kill other human beings without psychological consequence has proven throughout modern history to be profoundly flawed and deeply tragic. Men are emotional human beings no matter what our patriarchal-based society imposes and expects. One cannot just walk away from taking the life of another human being and remain unaffected. It isn’t natural.

PTSD is an enormous and multi-faceted topic that I will continue to discuss in posts to follow. Thank you for reading.