Stress doesn’t discriminate; it’s something that we all encounter. At its most basic level, stress is your body’s response to the demands or pressures of life. A recent survey from The Mental Health Foundation (2018) reported 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the past year that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Even positive change can cause you stress. How we react to stress, physically and psychologically, and how we manage stress differs between men and women.
When you encounter stress, your body is stimulated to produce stress hormones that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response and activates your immune system. This response to either a physical or psychological threat prepares your body to stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.
What happens to your body when stressed?
Stress it is not necessarily a bad thing. The stress response can be beneficial as a way of enabling you to meet daily challenges such as preparing for an exam or competing in a race. It also helps you to respond quickly to dangerous situations and without it we, as a species would not have evolved.
For stress to be beneficial it has to be short-lived. Problems arise when the stress goes on and on. Feeling overwhelmed for a prolonged period of time does not allow your body the chance to return to normal. Instead you are left feeling permanently in a state of ‘fight of flight’ and therefore your body needs to ‘borrow’ physical resources from normal bodily functions. This causes a real strain and can impact both physical and mental health.
How the stress response differs between men and women
Until recently, the ‘fight or flight’ response has been deemed a universal physiological response. Recent findings however suggest a basic difference in the way men and women respond to stress: men ‘fight or flight’ whilst women ‘tend and befriend’. Three stress hormones are involved in the flight or fight response: Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Oxytocin. Increased Oxytocin levels and female reproductive hormones in women softens the effect of cortisol and adrenaline meaning instead of getting ready to fight or to flee, women become more likely to either befriend or to seek social support from their support network. Further research suggests a single gene; the SRY gene found only in men provides the basis for why the ‘fight or flight’ response is manifested mainly in men rather than women.
How men manage stress
Evidence suggests that women manage stress better than men with men less likely to report symptoms of stress and more likely to withdraw socially. The way a man is socialised to be ‘manly’ could be an explanation as to why men are less likely to seek help. The view of a man is one of power, being in control and a provider for his family. Showing vulnerability or asking for help is deemed a ‘weakness’.
Potential effects of stress in men
Common symptoms of stress include poor sleep, aches and pains, headaches, digestive problems and generally feeling unable to cope and overwhelmed by demands.
Whilst both men and women experience most symptoms of stress there are a few that are exclusive or more common in men:
Findings have shown that stress increases the risk for prostate cancer and promotes tumour growth and spread.
Stress can cause erectile dysfunction in men of any age. Personal, professional, and relationship stress is the leading cause of erectile dysfunction.
The effect of chronic stress on testosterone levels, sperm production, and sperm quality increases the risk for infertility.
Increased alcohol consumption
Studies have found both men and women reporting high levels of stress consume more alcohol. Stressed men are one and a half times more likely to binge drink than women and are two and a half times more likely to have alcohol use disorders. Men tend to use alcohol to ‘self-medicate’ or to forget their troubles.
Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including Anxiety and Depression. In a UK survey in 2018, 29% of men reported experiencing suicidal feelings as a result of stress, and 13% reported having had self-harmed as a result of stress. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50 in the UK with three in every four suicides being male.
Ways of helping you manage your stress
Stress isn’t avoidable but it is manageable. Simple changes can have a real significant impact on your ability to feel in control and ability to cope with the demands that you face:
Talk to someone: Being able to talk with family or friends about what is causing you stress can really help you to deal with how you are feeling. If face-to-face conversation feels too hard at this time then try reaching out by phone, text or email. Writing down what is causing you stress and how you feel can also be a really good way of ‘offloading’ feelings of stress.
Make sure you are looking after ‘you’: When juggling lots of demands you may find that the last person you think of is YOU and your needs. Self-care is really important in order to keep your stress levels in check so make sure you take time out. Simple changes such as taking your lunch break at work and having a healthy work-life balance can help reduce your stress.
Get active: Exercise can be a great outlet for stress, and you don’t have to do anything too physically demanding either, even getting out for a walk around the block can help.
Reduce alcohol intake: Whilst alcohol may help deal with stress in the short term, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. Think of things you could do instead of drinking; go and have a bath, go out for a walk, call or meet a friend for a chat.
Do more of what you enjoy: Make sure you take time out of your busy schedule to do more of the things you enjoy or find relaxing. This may be spending time with family and friends, or enjoying a personal hobby.
Know your limits: It is important to recognise when the demands you face are becoming too much. Prioritise what needs to be done and break these tasks down into smaller more manageable chunks. Know that it is ok to say ‘no’ to the requests from others.
Remember, it is always OK to ask for help. Seeking help is often the first step towards getting and staying well.