Are men and women different in how they manage stress? Yes, say psychologists.
Research from McMaster University shows that Canadians tend to manage stress by problem-solving, looking on the bright side, trying to relax, talking to others, blaming ourselves, ignoring stress, or praying. But are men and women different in how they manage stress? Yes, say psychologists.
The causes of stress
The primary sources of stress for both men and women are work situations, financial concerns, health scares, and family issues. However, psychologist Randy Kamen says women tend to stress more about their relationships and men tend to stress more about work—but she believes this is slowly shifting. The exact causes of stress depend on one’s personality, physiology, genetics, health, environment, and emotional and spiritual approach to life.
Psychologist Steve Orma adds that it’s important for both men and women to distinguish between normal, short-term life stress and unhealthy, chronic stress. “A person can take on a good amount of short-term stress and show very little to no strain,” he says.
“He or she may even thrive on it, such as a work project that is challenging and stimulating. However, the emotional signs of chronic stress include feeling overwhelmed, overloaded, and anxious. Physical symptoms might be headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and poor sleep.”
Between 75 and 90 percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Thus, the key to healthy living is to manage both short- and long-term stress before it manages you.
“We need to deal with our stress because it affects our mental, physical, and emotional health,” says Kamen. “Stress can increase our risk of heart disease, metabolic disorders, immune problems, and a whole spectrum of psychological disorders. It plays a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, and depression.” Stress can also wreak havoc on our personal and professional relationships.
Everyone—man or woman—experiences stress in ways that are unique to each individual. The key to managing stress and staying healthy is to know yourself. If you learn when your stress level is too high or lasting too long, you might be more likely to administer yourself some TLC.
“One way to increase your self-awareness is to ask, ‘On a scale of one to 10, where is my stress level?’” says Orma. “A number between one and five is a manageable amount of stress, because you can still function well and feel good. Anything above that is too much stress if it’s sustained for long periods.
“However, it’s okay to have high stress for a brief period of time, such as during an intense workout or roller-coaster ride.”
Symptoms of stress
General signs of stress in both men and women include
- upset stomach
- low productivity
- appetite changes
- emotional outbursts
- difficulty concentrating
Other physical symptoms of stress—which may be causing those trips to the doctor’s office—include chest pain, loss of sexual desire or ability, ringing in the ear, sweaty hands and feet, dry mouth, jaw clenching, grinding teeth, difficulty swallowing, shallow breathing, and low energy.
Stress in women
According to Kamen, women are more likely to experience stress through physical and emotional symptoms such as headaches, indigestion, and crying bouts.
Women are also more likely to manage stress by “tending and befriending.” Tending involves engaging in activities that protect and nurture the self and loved ones, while befriending is about connecting with others to give and receive support.
Stress in men
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to react to stress with a “fight-or-flight” response, which revolves around fighting back, escaping, or bottling it up. They are also more likely to experience sleeplessness, irritability, anger, and backaches.
Why the difference? A stressed woman’s body releases more endorphins and oxytocin—and estrogen—than a stressed man’s. A man’s body releases large amounts of norepinephrine and cortisol when he is stressed and smaller amounts of oxytocin.
Australian research suggests the different responses to stress may boil down to a single gene. The SRY gene on a man’s Y chromosome plays an important role in the fight-or-flight response, neural activity, cardiovascular function, and movement. Women don’t have this gene, which may help explain the different responses to stress.
Unhealthy ways to cope
A 2014 survey found that less than half of Canadians exercise to relieve stress, yet we know exercise is a “win-win” activity that reduces anxiety and improves overall health.
“The worst way to cope with stress is to ignore it or avoid the symptoms,” says Orma. Not dealing with stress can trigger or exacerbate other physical health issues over time, such as cardiac problems and decreased immunity to disease. Avoidance can also lead to emotional health issues such as depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.
Overeating, using alcohol and drugs, repressing emotions, and gambling are other unhealthy ways of dealing with stress. “Men seem to gravitate more to sex and gambling, while women are more likely to engage in comfort eating,” says Kamen. “But sex, gambling, and overeating are common reactions to stress in both genders.” These unhealthy coping mechanisms may alleviate emotional pain in the moment, but create significant health and other problems in the long run.
Man or woman, it’s important to learn what makes your stress levels skyrocket and how your body tells you it needs some TLC. Experiment with different physical, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and social ways to manage stress until you find what works for you. And make our Canadian researchers proud by exercising as a primary way to relieve stress!
Quick stress release tips
- Take a deep breath and tell yourself you have enough time, energy, patience, and resources.
- Rejuvenate by placing ice or heat packs on your neck and shoulders for 10 minutes.
- Focus on something in nature for two to five minutes.
- Remind yourself of what really matters.
- Play loud music and bop around your home or office.
- Express gratitude often.
- Exercise to increase endorphins, release cortisol, boost the immune system, and process your emotions.
- Connect with a friend or loved one.
Supplements to relieve stress
The most effective supplements to relieve stress depend on the cause and symptoms of stress. Naturopathic doctor Jennifer Burns offers some suggestions of some supplements that may reduce stress’s symptoms or severity. However, be sure to talk to a health care practitioner to find the best possible remedies for your symptoms and lifestyle.
Magnesium catalyzes many chemical reactions, synthesizes protein, transmits nerve signals, relaxes muscles, and produces and transports adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy.
L-tyrosine is involved with the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters and is used for depression, stress, and to help improve athletic performance.
Theanine, in studies, relaxes the brain, improves sleep quality, and increases memory and learning.
Thiamine (vitamin B1) metabolizes carbohydrates. It may help treat depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
Niacin (vitamin B3) can help manage high cholesterol levels. Low levels of niacin are associated with digestive upsets and poor mental health.
Camomile can help induce sleep and calm the nervous system.