Men Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety in Simple Ways
By: John D. Moore, PhD
The topic of men and stress is not something most guys sit around and chat about. Let’s be honest guys, you are not going to watch a football game with your buddies and talk about how much job related stress you are dealing with. The same holds true if you are feeling stressed out because there are problems in your relationship or marriage. For a host of cultural reasons, including societal norms, men just do not process their feelings and emotions in the same way that women do.
But maybe we should.
According to recent scientific research, people (including men) are feeling more stressed out than ever. This fact is particularly true for young men who are just getting their start in a highly competitive world. And to keep it real, one of the primary reasons the topic of stress seldom comes up among guys can be traced to legitimate fears of being perceived as weak.
Men, stress and hormones
Men and women tend to deal with stress in different ways. Research suggests that much of the male stress response has to do with hormones. Specifically, we are talking about cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin. Without getting into all of the nerdy science, what is important to know is that men generally secrete less oxytocin than women. You might be thinking, “So what?”
Well, it turns out that having less of this hormone is kind of a big deal because oxytocin helps to regulate emotions. Think about it for a minute. Don’t guys in general seem to rise to anger just a little faster than our female counterparts? Part of the reason this happens is because of that oxytocin brain chemical. While this is not an excuse for angry outbursts or ugly behavior, it does highlight an important gender related difference in stress science.
Men, stress and triggers
One of the things we try to cover in men’s counseling and in life coaching is to explore what activities or events act as triggers for stress. For example, you may find that your commute to work each day causes frustration. This in turn makes you short-tempered, anxious and even a little irritable. Sound familiar?
Another example might be getting stuck on a conference call that is really a waste of your time; all the while knowing you could be working on a project. As you sit on the call and look at the clock, your level of stress increases. Can you relate?
Physical and emotional toll of stress
Over the course of time, the stress we hold accumulates and begins to take a toll on our physical and emotional health. If you are a guy who is struggling with irritable bowel syndrome, you know exactly what I am talking about.
And because we are guys, we tend to cope with emotional stress in ways that are not always healthy. Here, I am talking about drinking, stress eating and angry outbursts. Some men even go into classic shut-down mode and just withdraw.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are some things men can do to help reduce stress in their lives and create change around some of the behaviors I have mentioned here. What follows are 5 things you can do to better cope with stress as part of an overall mindful approach to healthier living.
5 Stress Busters for Men
1. Engage in deep breathing
You may have heard about the benefits of deep breathing before but it is worth mentioning here just anyway. Deep breathing helps to calm nerves while also moving us away from negative thinking.
By focusing on the activity or breathing, we are less focused on a given source of aggravation (i.e. traffic jams). If you are interested in learning more about deep breathing, be sure to download one of our wellness worksheets.
2. Start a strength training routine
An excellent way to alleviate stress is to get involved with a strength training program. Strength training not only helps you channel some of that pent up stress but also has a positive impact on the production of oxytocin – that brain chemical I talked about earlier.
An additional benefit of strength training is that you will feel less tired during the day, which can translate into your being less irritable.
3. Use positive psychology
Positive psychology is a term that has gotten a raw deal if you ask me. People mistakenly believe it is some kind of new-age mumbo jumbo that belongs out on the west coast. Here is the deal – positive psychology is a highly researched area of the behavioral sciences.
One of its core principles is people have ability to choose wellness. This means when channeled properly, you have the ability to decide how you will respond to a stressful situation on a number of levels; physically, emotionally and psychologically. If you have time, learn how positive psychology can help unlock the secrets to a good morning and a great day!
4. Focus on the funny
This may sound like a silly point but it is a scientific fact that use of humor helps to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. It has also helped men and women work through various forms of depression, such as seasonal affective disorder. So when you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, reach for comedy instead of stress. Funny how that paradox works, huh? OK – bad joke but you get the idea.
Sources of humor can found almost anywhere, including the comics in your local newspaper or on the Internet through funny videos. I am including a link here to one of my favorites called “Stop It Therapy” with Bob Newhart. The point here is to find what makes you laugh and turn to it when you need a quick pick me up to get through the moment.
5. Talk to a friend
This point goes back to the start of this article about how men don’t talk about stress. While you may feel uncomfortable talking about your feelings in front of a group of guys, it can help to talk to someone. Do you have a buddy that you feel close to that you can confide in? If so, why not talk a little about some of what’s stressing you out? Chances are your friend likely is holding some of the same feelings you are.
And let’s get one thing clear – talking about what stresses us is not the same as whining. The difference here is that when we decide to talk about our feelings, we are making the conscious choice to discharge emotions in a healthy way. Whining on the other hand has no purpose, other than to perpetuate learned helplessness.
Men experience and express stress differently than women. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t handle stress “better” or “smarter”. In fact, one could make the argument that our female counterparts do a better job on both of these fronts.
One of the best things you can do to help reduce stress in your life is to learn more about your triggers and coping responses. A great book to pick up is Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky. Inside, you will find a boatload of insight about the entire topic of stress, triggers and how to better deal.
Finally, many men find it helpful to reach out to a helping professional, such as a counselor like myself. This is particularly true for guys who are juggling multiple roles, like husband, boyfriend, dad, employee and son. Sometimes, just having another person to confide in, devoid of judgment, can truly have an impact on the stress response.
Question: How do you cope with stress? What healthy outlets, activities and behaviors have you found most beneficial?