Why stress is different for men
There seems to be no escaping it: stress is real and pervasive. Men are no less immune than women to the effects of pressure, worry, and overwhelm, yet there are differences when it comes to the manifestations of overload and uncertainty. Even when it all feels like too much, though, there are many effective ways that men can manage stress.
A certain amount of short-term stress can be a good thing: it boosts alertness and primes the brain for enhanced performance. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and anxiety, among other conditions. In men, high stress can also contribute to erectile dysfunction.
Physiologically, men and women initially react to stress in similar ways: breathing quickens, heart rate increases, muscles tense up, and sweating starts. In response to a stressful incident—or a perceived threat—the body releases a cascade of hormones, and different hormones appear to affect how stress then manifests.
Men tend to experience the “fight-or-flight” mechanism, while women typically lean toward “treat and nurture” or “tend and befriend.” The fight-or-flight reflex is a primal instinct that evolved as a survival mechanism in the presence of an imminent danger, one that is triggered most prominently in men.
In the face of a stressful situation, women generally produce more oxytocin than men. The “cuddle hormone” calms the nervous system and encourages social interaction. Combined with estrogen, the reproductive hormone, this promotes the need for intimate contact and emotional expression.
Men, meanwhile, produce lower levels of oxytocin, and they also release vasopressin, which is associated with aggression. Coupled with the testosterone, which promotes a sense of separateness, men are more prone to ignore stress.
Sources of stress among men and women include health issues, death of a spouse or close family member, divorce or separation, and major personal illness or injury. Other triggers appear to be especially common in men, according to John Oliffe, professor and Canada Research Chair in Men’s Health Promotion at the University of British Columbia.
“Relationships can be common stressors,” Oliffe says. “For men trying to forge partner relationships, it can be distressing if they’re not equipped to deal with it; no one really teaches guys how to have relationships. It’s kind of trial and error.
“Money is another,” Oliffe says, pointing to evidence of higher suicide rates in men following the 2008 global recession.
“These days, it’s a recession; there’s inflation; and if you’re lucky enough to have a job, your wage is lagging behind those increases,” he says. “We know it’s just a gas lighter for guys, because they might align to that ‘breadwinner’ role, whether they’re fulfilling it or not. Guys like to idealize themselves as being at the forefront of providing.”
Society does indeed place different, if outdated, expectations on men and women as to how they should deal with stressful situations. Men commonly feel that not revealing emotion is a show of strength. “A lot of times guys will revert to this or think it’s taboo,” Oliffe says. “This can be informed by the hope of being strong for someone else.”
Traditional expectations of “manning up” can affect men’s abilities to deal with stress in meaningful ways.
Often, the way things unfold can be summed up by what Oliffe refers to as the “three I’s.”
It’s vital to remember that stress could be a sign of deeper underlying problems. “I think every guy we talk to about depression talks about stress, and every guy who talks about stress talks about depression,” Oliffe adds.
“The language is less loaded. Sometimes when you hear someone say, ‘I’m so stressed,’ try and unpack that. Stress is often a calling card for other things going on. There could be mental health challenges underneath the behaviours you’re seeing, and it’s important to dig deeper.”
The mental health benefits of exercise cannot be emphasized enough. Physical activity boosts the body’s production of endorphins, or feel-good neurotransmitters; it improves mood, focus, productivity, and sleep.
“Exercise is key,” Oliffe says. “It’s about small gains, small goals; it’s the routine that a lot of guys really like. It gives you some time to think. I often do a three-song run, and the most important part is the cool-down. I get to unpack the day.”
Reaching out to a partner, friends, or other trusted people in your life is another way to manage stress. “Think about it as mutual help: a lot of times if you have a conversation with another guy, they’ll have things that affirm you in your experience. There’s a reciprocity there. We do better with people around us, especially good people.”
Accessing professional help can go a long way in handling stress, and more men are accessing such services, Oliffe says. Speaking with someone who’s outside of their personal situation can help men debrief with a view to seeing things from another point of view, ultimately giving them back some control.
The shift to online counselling or therapy since COVID has led to more men getting help, since they can access help from the privacy of their home or office.
Men’s groups can be equally effective because they encourage accountability for doing introspective work, bearing witness to others’ experiences, and drawing wisdom from those relatable situations. Oliffe recommends finding a group that’s proactive and focused on responsibility as opposed to those that may simply involve counterproductive whining.
Yelling might be more associated with men, and while expressing emotions is positive, this particular form may not be all that helpful. “It’s a loss of control often associated with overreaction,” Oliffe says.
“Often, anger will be the expression of three, four, or five emotions underneath that they can’t make sense of, and the frustration is articulated as yelling,” he says. “It doesn’t get rid of the discord. It’s helpful if men can sit with those things that don’t make sense to unpack them and ask: ‘Where is my regret coming from? Where is my relief coming from?’ It’s okay to work through those yourself plus or minus some professional help.”
Even just a few deep breaths can help reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
Breathing in calming aromas or essential oils derived from plants such as lavender can soothe the mind.
Many people find rubbing their feet over a golf ball relaxing, or squeezing a stress ball helpful in relieving tension.
Too much stuff can contribute to stress. Clean your desk to clear away stress.
Watch something funny or chat with someone who cracks you up: a little LOL can improve blood flow and immunity.
A few minutes alone in a quiet, comfortable, peaceful space can calm the mind.
Research suggests that B vitamins can elevate mood, improve cognitive performance, and reduce stress and mental fatigue.
Found in green tea, the amino acid increases feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, diminishing anxiety and stress.
The calming herb, a member of the mint family, promotes relaxation and sleep.
The essential mineral appears to enhance relaxation and restrict the release of stress hormones.
The herb is an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body adapt to stress by reducing the amount of cortisol in the body.
There’s a link between chronic pain and stress. Testosterone decreases feelings of pain; however, stress can reduce levels of testosterone and increase cortisol, thus intensifying feelings of pain. If chronic pain is intensifying, consider looking at ways to bring stress down.