When men get stressed, their natural response leans toward flight or fight. Do they turn tail and run or stick around and gut it out?
When women get stressed, the theory is they either tend or befriend -- that is, nurture those around them or reach out to others.
Men and women clearly react to stress differently. So when it comes time to decompress, their ways of unwinding differ as well.
"Managing stress is often different by sex," says Carl Pickhardt, PhD, a psychologist and author of The Everything Parent's Guide to Positive Discipline. "Women often seek support to talk out the emotional experience, to process what is happening and what might be done. Men often seek a companionship activity to get relief from stress, to create a relaxing diversion or escape."
Whether it's a support group or a compassionate friend, a round of golf or a run in the park, experts give WebMD practical tips for both sexes on how to unwind when stress strikes.
Stress Tips for Women
It was only a few years ago that the "tend or befriend" theory was developed by a leading psychologist in the field, Shelly E. Taylor, PhD, a distinguished professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study, published in the July 2000 issue of Psychological Review, reported that women were more likely to deal with stress by taking care of their loved ones, or by leaning on a friend or family member for support.
With this new theory tailored just for women serving as a guideline for how they can deal with stress, experts offer these tips:
- Develop a first aid kit for stress. "Since women are so relationship dependent, it's important for them to have a strong support system in place," says Carol Goldberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in stress management. "It's just like having a first aid kit for when you cut your finger --having this support system in place is a first aid kit for stress that you can count on in an emergency."
- Make sure that your support system is effective. "Whether its relatives or friends, seek out people who are good for you in a stressful situation," says Goldberg, who hosts a weekly television program in New York. "You need people who don't panic under pressure, who aren't depressed, and who aren't worst-case-scenario thinkers. Make sure the people you have around you when you're stressed handle it well."
- Find a friend who can keep a secret. "It's important that the people you have around you can respect your privacy when you're stressed," says Goldberg.
- Tell your story. "When it helps, tell your story," Goldberg tells WebMD. "If you are among the women who feel better talking about stress, don't keep it bottled up. Instead, get out with a trusted friend who will lend a compassionate ear. And avoid obsessing, which can depress you both."
- Say "no" when you're stressed. Women tend to put on a superwoman cape when they're stressed, doing too much for too many people and forgetting about themselves in the meantime. This, clearly, is something to avoid. "Women can selflessly help too much at their own costs," says Pickhardt, who is a spokesman for the American Psychological Association. So remember to put yourself first when you're feeling stressed.
- Say "yes" to the simple things in life. "Say 'yes' to investing in yourself for replenishment of energy, personal renewal, and regular relaxation," says Pickhardt. Take a long, hot bath when you're feeling stressed, or go for a walk, spend a day with a friend, or read a book -- anything that is all about you.
Stress Tips for Men
When men are stressed, it's the tried-and-true flight-or-fight theory that they turn to. Here are stress-reduction tips for men that will help them relax when they need it most:
- Exercise! "Very often, men tend to get rid of the tension and adrenaline by doing something physical, like jogging," says Goldberg. Hitting the gym for an hour works, too -- anything that gets your blood flowing and your heart rate pumping.
- Spend time with the guys. Golfing, softball, or any team sport that let's a guy escape his stress is a good way to unwind. "Men often seek a companionship activity like golfing or getting outdoors to get relief from stress, to create a relaxing diversion or escape," says Pickhardt.
- Spend time alone. When a guy is de-stressing, their activity of choice can include some time flying solo as well. "It doesn't have to be an activity that a man shares with others, it can be solitary as well, like hiking, photography, or fishing," says Pickhardt.
- Build a first aid kit. "While relationships are important for women when it comes to stress, that doesn't mean men don't need their own first aid kit," says Goldberg. So the same tips apply for men, too: When you're stressed, surround yourself with people you trust and who can help you deal with your problems.
Tips for Men and Women
"People respond to stress differently, and they perceive it differently," says Paul Rosch, MD, who is president of the American Institute of Stress. "So there is no one universal stress-reduction strategy for everyone. While women are more apt to take a bath and do aromatherapy, and men are more apt to go jogging, you can't define what one or the other should do because it's so different for each person."
Whether you're a man or a woman, here are stress-reduction tips that apply to everyone:
- Understand what you can and can't control. "Identify those things in your life that are stressful and put them in one of two categories: Is this something I can't avoid or do anything about, or something in which I can make a difference?" says Rosch, who is also a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at the New York Medical College. "Use your time and talents effectively on those things that you can control so you're not constantly frustrated."
- Man's best friend. "For both men and women, when you talk about companionship, that can mean your pet as well," says Goldberg. Take your dog jogging, or spend some time on your couch relaxing with your cat.
- Listen to the music. "Music is good for both men and women when they're stressed," says Goldberg. "Just pick something you really like and listen to a bunch of music." It's a simple way to unwind.
- Find a new hobby. "Some people really get involved with their hobbies," says Goldberg. "Any kind of hobby they can just go and do is great -- it gets their mind off their stress."
- Take care of yourself. Most importantly, "Make self-care a priority," says Pickhardt. "Someone who won't invest in his or her own self-care is destined to run down into stress."