You probably think of yourself as an average guy. And you probably think you cope pretty well with everyday stress. Sure, the boss might be causing you stress at work and making you uneasy about how secure your job is. Yeah, and maybe your wife has been too busy or too tired lately to notice just how much stress you have to deal with. And look at how fast your daughter is growing up. It's as if you're watching her in time-lapse photography while your college-aged son is still stuck in high school. . .
But that's all right. You're cool. Except for those stressful moments when you snarl because your shirt buttons are too big, or you bust a blood vessel because some old lady is taking forever to get off the bus, or the blankety-blank CD, which you paid perfectly good money for, is shrink-wrapped so tightly that you break the case trying to open it. Whoa! Maybe it's not the disc that's wrapped too tight.
Do you think maybe you are feeling more stress these days? Maybe even more stress than a woman?
Suck it up? How men try to cope with stress
"I think women and men are equally stressed," says Edward Hallowell, MD. "Men just deal with stress differently." Hallowell is founder of the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Mass., and author of Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD. "Men notoriously have trouble putting their feelings into words," he says. "They bottle things up so they're more subject to the damages of stress."
But aren't men just supposed to suck it up? "The essence of traditional masculinity is invulnerability," says Terrence Real, MSW, a psychotherapist in Newton, Mass. Real is the author of I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. "Vulnerability equals femininity," he says. "Femininity equals unmanliness. And unmanliness equals disaster. The system that men organize their psychology around is built on a lie. We're all trying to be little Al Haigs, saying, 'I'm in charge here.'"
Not that women are any more in charge. They're just given more leeway and are more apt to be forgiven if they throw up their hands and say, "I can't handle it!" Hallowell believes they actually have a tougher time of it than men.
"Women's stress often comes from working as well as having the primary caretaking responsibilities at home," he says. In fact, the causes of stress may be the same for both genders - too much work and too little time for exercise or relaxation. But Hallowell thinks men are deprived of a crucial safety valve. "Men have trouble saying, 'Gosh, this is hard,' and asking for help. In that sense they have it harder than women. But the good news is they can do something to change that."
Recognizing the symptoms of stress
Before you can change things, you have to recognize the symptoms of stress. Hallowell tells WebMD that stress symptoms may include any of these mild, non-specific afflictions:
- Feeling tired
- Inability to sleep
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of concentration and an inability to complete projects
- Muscular and skeletal aches and pains ("A lot of men carry stress in their lower back or neck muscles," Hallowell says.)
- Recurring headaches
- Starting to "drink or use to cope," which puts men further behind and gets men into all kinds of trouble
Stress can also cause more severe medical conditions:
- Chest pains
- Digestive problems
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated heart rate at rest
- Sexual problems such as lack of desire, inability to have an erection, or premature ejaculation
- Skin eruptions
"Virtually every system of the body can be negatively impacted by stress," says Hallowell. That includes your immune system. "And a depressed immune function," he says, "increases the risk of cold and flu, as well as cancer, and - in the worst case - stroke and heart attack." What that means is it really doesn't pay to get anxious.
How men can prevent stress
If you're someone who hates to be told not to worry, it may be because you haven't heard Terry Real's definition: "Worry is having your pain in advance," he says. When you look at it that way, who wants to suffer twice? "You can learn to keep yourself in the present," he says. "Don't project into the future."
Also, admitting vulnerability can be a way of preventing stress. "Men do not like admitting vulnerabilities," says Real, "so we don't go to the doctor." Real asserts that this is the reason women live longer than men. "It has nothing to do with biology; it's that men wait longer to go to a doctor than women do. And when we do, we don't listen to them. That's what denying your vulnerability gets you." While not every health expert will agree with Real on his theory about lifespan and doctor visits, overcoming the vulnerability hurdle is still advice worth heeding.
Why work causes stress in men
When working with men, Real likes to use a variation of the serenity prayer, reminding men of all the things they cannot control. "What I do in helping men to reduce stress is tell them that you don't decrease your helplessness by learning to control things better. You do it by having a more realistic sense of what you can control." To illustrate, he plays a stress relief game, asking a man to move a box of Kleenex with his mind. Then he reminds him of how often men are asked to do the impossible in their jobs. Job stress can take a major toll on a man's health.
"Men are taught to act as if we can control the impossible on a daily basis," Real says, quoting such chestnuts as "I don't care about your effort, I care about results" and "You're going to deliver and if you can't, I'll find someone who can!"
"We are taught to accept responsibility for things we don't have control over," says Real. "Usually we get bent out of shape with what we can't change and get so involved with that, we fail to step up to the plate and do the things we can. Procrastination is the most naked form of that."
Three easy steps to reducing stress
If it's too late to prevent stress, Hallowell has three simple steps you can take to help relieve stress. "Lead what I call a connected life," he says, "not electronically connected, but interpersonally connected, where you have friends you rely on and talk with. Get physical exercise, a major stress reducer. And get enough sleep. Those three steps, which anybody can do, will make a big difference."
What about men who say they don't have time to relax or exercise? Hallowell has heard it before. "Most people are much more aware of how they spend their money than their time," he says. "Most people waste at least three hours a week in what I call 'screen sucking' - mindless emailing, IMing, and surfing the net. If you just cut that out, there's a workout for you and a lunch with a friend. If you include the time spent watching television, it probably adds another eight to ten hours."
So stop reading this, get up, and go relax.