When Depression Turns to Anger

 Published in Whole Life Times, August 1998, pp.26

The other night my 18-year-old son and I drove to the video store to return a couple of movies. As we were leaving the store, we witnessed a brewing confrontation between two men. The larger of the two was standing by his parked car unleashing a torrent of epithets at a smaller man who was scurrying back to his vehicle, which obviously had been parked to facilitate the speediest approach to the video return line. The argument had started because one car was blocking the other’s exit.

As we watched, both men approached each other menacingly. But at the height of their confrontation, the fight climaxed in a meltdown of suppressed tension. Like an over-inflated balloon releasing all of its air with a whoosh!, it was over. Each man had vented his anger and could now walk away without feeling that he had shied away from a display of his masculine prowess. The two had proven they were not wimps or sissies, but truly men, and now each turned his awaiting vehicle off into the sunset.

My son looked at me with surprise.

“Dad, what was all that about?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” I answered, “but you can bet that it wasn’t just about a blocked car.”

No doubt something much more significant was going on within this enraged tyrant, and he just took this particular opportunity to blow off steam. Frequently, encounters such as this one are unwittingly choreographed to produce a desired result. There seems to be a need in some men to bring the underlying grief of some unresolved psychic pain to a boil.

Men are traditionally taught to be strong, so revealing one’s feelings is often viewed as a sign of weakness. For many men, crying is a feminine characteristic that feels shameful to them. In a reductionist sense, anger is often the only emotion that is left for a man to express without feeling like less of a man.

In addition, men are conditioned to numb themselves to any feeling that would interfere with their ability to perform up to certain expectations. Men place a high priority on their ability to rise to the occasion when necessary. Consequently, it is not uncommon for a man to feel shame in not being able to do an adequate job of exercising his masculinity by defending some territorial imperative, whether imagined or real.

Even now, after decades of attention toward the raising of our consciousness, men still find it hard to express their more vulnerable feelings. Why does it seem that we’re still conforming to traditional masculine roles?

The answer lies in part within the realm of brain science. Current research indicates that the reason people function in certain ways may have more to do with what’s going on with them neurologically than we had ever considered. The presence of absence of hormones and neurotransmitters in one’s bloodstream largely determines one’s behavior.

In 1995, the Department of Justice collected studies on anger and violence and found that there is absolutely no evidence that men are angrier than women. There are differences, however, in the ways that men and women express their anger. Women tend to be more subtle in their displays of anger, and as a society, we pay more attention to the testosterone-driven displays of aggression by men. In other words, the violence that men commit is obviously more dangerous.

Males produce a significantly greater amount of testosterone than do women. Testosterone drives men to manifest more aggression and have a more ravenous appetite for sex. Testosterone also triples in males during puberty, explaining why adolescent boys tend more toward aggression at this time of their lives.

Michael Gurian, author of numerous books including The Wonder of Boys and the newly published A Fine Young Man, says that boys “desperately need the monitoring, channeling and containing presence of men during the extremely turbulent developmental period.”

On the other hand, when men are not producing enough serotonin, a neurotransmitter that allows one to be calm, focused and mood-stabilized, they tend to get depressed. One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something men are supposed to rise above. It is the secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives.

In his book I Don’t Want To Talk About It, Terrence Real characterizes covert depression in men as “the hidden depression that drives several of the problems we think of as typically male—alcoholism, drug abuse, self-medicating with sex, gambling, domestic violence, workaholism, antisocial behaviors and conduct disorder.”

Vulnerability to depression in many cases is an inherited biological condition. Anyone, given the right mix of chromosomes, will have a susceptibility to this disease. But in the majority of cases, vulnerability alone is not enough to bring about the disorder; instead it is the collision of inherited vulnerability with psychological injury that produces depression.

Girls tend to internalize pain by blaming themselves and drawing distress into themselves. Boys, and later men, tend to externalize pain; they are more likely to feel victimized by others and to discharge distress through action.

Too often, a wounded boy grows up to be a wounded man, inflicting upon those closest to him the very distress he refused to acknowledge in himself. Depression in men, unless it is dealt with, tends to be passed along to others.

Often, anger arises out of the frustrating and debilitating forces associated with other neurological conditions such as bipolar disorder of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. A short fuse is one of the more common symptoms. I believe our prisons are filled with men who were never diagnosed or treated for many of these conditions.

More and more men and boys are finding themselves asking for help in anger management. Issues manifesting in poor impulse control, verbal abuse and battery seem more prevalent now. It’s either reaching epidemic proportion or perhaps, since the O.J. trial, there is just more attention focused on the problem.

What can be done to help? If depression, anxiety or other mood disorder is diagnosed, it can usually be treated with a combination of psychotherapy and natural remedies such as St. John’s Wort and Kava, or medication. Above all, men need to be able to deal with their issues in a safe environment. They need to come to terms with the tendency to avoid feelings of vulnerability and to defend through anger. The underlying, in most cases, can be ameliorated through counseling.