For the vast majority of Americans, stress is simply an unavoidable fact of life. But just because both men and women are subject to stress doesn’t mean we respond to it in the same way—and evidence suggests that men find stress more challenging to defuse.
Signs that you’re under too much pressure can include physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach discomfort and sleeplessness; emotional issues, such as racing thoughts and becoming easily overwhelmed and anxious; and cognition difficulties, including forgetfulness, disorganization and lack of focus. Stress may even aggravate pain by causing your muscles to tense, which can lead to ongoing discomfort in your back, neck and shoulders.
According to a survey cited by Wisconsin-based Sauk Prairie Healthcare, “34% of male participants cited finances as the No. 1 stressor in their life.”
Other major stress sources are familiar to everyone: relationship strains, concerns about both health and job stability, and what Sauk Prarie calls the “fast pace of life: long work commutes, caring for children, running errands, making meals, maintaining your property, keeping up with appointments.”
What makes these external factors more stressful is how we react to them.
“Stress is linked to our high competitiveness and the need to do more than the next person,” says Men’s Minds Matter (MMM), a British public health initiative. “We can also find stressors in other areas of our lives including social media, bullying, the pressure to provide...the list goes on and on.”
How Stress Affects Men
Part of the reason stress affects men more profoundly than women is physiological.
“Stress tends to activate different areas of the brain in men and women,” explains psychologist Jerry Kennard, PhD, author of Overcoming Worry and Anxiety (Sheldon). “Men experience a stronger stress response than women. This puts men more at risk for experiencing an increase in aggression, cardiovascular disease and decreased immune functioning.”
What’s more, in studies “when men were faced with a stressful task, areas of the brain associated with vigilance and negative emotions fired up more than in women doing the same task,” says Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, who adds that in stressed men, areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and pleasure were suppressed.
On the other hand, Bauer says, “When stressed, the female brain releases more oxytocin, which counters the effects of cortisol and epinephrine by promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions.” And according to an Indian research group, female hormones may also help dampen the effects of cortisol in women.
All of this may help explain why women tend to reach out to others for support during times of stress. It may also be the reason why women tend to manage stress better and why they are less likely to experience major depression brought on by work-related stress.
The ways men and women process pressure can themselves be stressful.
That’s because women tend to be more supportive during periods of stress, while men “are more likely to be critical in responding to a stressed partner and less likely to be positive, nurturing and comforting,” says UCLA’s Thomas Bradbury, PhD, who has done research in this area.
Stress can also lead to self-medication with alcohol and other substances, which causes more problems than it solves.
The differing ways that men and women react to stress show up in surveys. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), women are much more likely than men to say that having a good relationship with family members and friends is important to them.
The Myth of the Strong, Silent Man
Another reason men have a hard time handling stress is psychological, born of the idea that a man should keep his feelings to himself and present a stoic face to the world.
“In the United States, many men grow up with the expectation that they should ‘bottle things up’ and refrain from asking for help,” notes Bauer. “Research shows that men are less likely than women to recognize or admit they are stressed.”
“When we experience extreme stress, our whole focus goes towards the problems as we see them and there is little, if any, energy left for relationships, hobbies, interests and the self,” says MMM. “It can lead us to feel alone and isolated. We might even be angered by others for asking for our time when we have so many things to deal with.”
Healthy Ways to Defuse Stress
Fortunately, you can find positive ways to relieve stress.
If there’s one healthy way to blow off steam that men are all over, it’s exercise. According to the APA, men are more likely than women to say they play sports, 16% versus 4%. Men are also more likely to cite exercise as a way of staving off illness—and much illness is stress-related. One University of Maryland study found that exercise can actually help you deal with stress afteryou finish a workout.
Try to get some of your weekly exercise outside of the gym (or your basement). According to scientists at Stanford University, people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting were less likely to spend that time stewing over problems than those who walked in manmade environments.
Anytime is the right time to start exercising, even if you don’t move much now.
“If you’re very unfit, simply start by walking more. Walk to work, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk the dog,” advises MMM. “Get rid of that built-up tension!”
Adopt a Mind-Body Practice
Men have been slower to adopt practices that help connect mind to body, such as yoga and meditation. Both help relieve stress; for example, one study found yoga to be “an effective self- management strategy to cope with stress, anxiety and depression” during the Covid-19 lockdown.
What all these practices have in common are breath control and mindfulness, the ability to live in the moment with openness and acceptance. “”Deep, controlled and slowed breathing from the diaphragm combats many of the physiological symptoms that we experience when stressed,” explains psychologist Kevin Chapman, Ph.D.
“There are many types of yoga, tai chi and meditation that can help get your mind off your troubles and offset stress,” says Bauer. “These practices have been around for centuries for a reason—because they work.”
Evidence suggests that other relaxation therapies, such as massage and hypnosis, may also help.
Get More Sleep
Both exercise and mind-body work help promote sounder sleep, which is vital to effective stress control. As Bauer puts it, “A well-rested body always deals with stress better than an exhausted one.”
This means you need to hit the sack at about the same time every night; playing video games or flipping through your feeds until 2 a.m. is not going to cut it. MMM adds, “Staying awake at night trying to solve problems is often counterproductive and should be an exception.”
Need help finding dreamland? “Stay off your cell phone or computer one hour before bedtime, stop drinking alcohol a few hours before going to bed and keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet,” suggests Bauer.
Neutralize Work-Related Stress
Since work is a big stressor in men’s lives—both issues connected to the job itself and to the financial concerns that accompany them—it makes sense to deal with such pressures at the source.
For one thing, try to control your email usage; a study team from the University of British Columbia found that people felt less stressed when they checked their email less often. See if you can arrange your service so that you will be alerted only when emailed by your supervisor and other crucial contacts, and then limit your email checks to three or four times a day.
Have you ever heard the adage, “Perfect is the enemy of good”? Striving for excellence is admirable; trying to cross every t and dot every i is an exercise in frustration. Rein in your need for perfection.
One way to be highly productive without undue strain is to plan your work as much as possible. To avoid deadline crunches, take on your more challenging tasks early in the day, week or month.
Don’t hesitate to reward yourself for a job well done. According to an A.C. Nielsen survey, 52% of the respondents didn’t take all their vacation days in a year...even though 71% said that people who take vacations at least once a year are happier and more satisfied with their lives. Take the vacation days and/or comp time you’re given (and don’t bring work with you).
Find Other Ways to Tackle Stress
Sometimes, the best way to deal with life’s challenges is to find a different perspective.
Take, for instance, traffic jams—a common source of stress. “Use that time to play your favorite music, sing or listen to a podcast,” suggests MMM. “Choose to use that time in a positive way rather than getting wound up about it.”
You can also change your perspective through a technique called objective recording. Sit down with a pad of paper and draw a line down the middle; label the first column “Negative Thoughts” and the second “Alternatives,” then fill out both columns.
“When we simply acknowledge what we’re saying to ourselves out of stress, we often realize how silly we are being,” Chapman says.
Finally, men can stand to learn something that women have always known.
“Sometimes you just can't deal with everything on your own,” Bauer says. “Seeking input from someone you trust is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s a show of strength and a way to take control of your situation and get things back on track.”
All of these suggestions may help. But what’s the best way to neutralize stress?
“Spend time with loved ones,” says Bauer. “It'll remind you of what's really important in life."
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