Gone unchecked, stress can create serious health problems for men.
The Mayo Clinic defines stress as a normal reaction to the demands of life: "Your brain comes hardwired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, your body releases a burst of hormones to fuel your fight-or-flight response. When the threat is gone, your body returns to normal. Unfortunately, the nonstop stress of modern life means your alarm system rarely shuts off."
A study done at UCLA in 2000 explains that both men and women respond with fight-or-flight, but it's our next responses that make us different. Women "tend and befriend," essentially using talk therapy, friendship and caretaking as stress-relievers. Men stay in fight-or-flight mode longer. Why? The answer is in hormones and hardwiring.
Stress and hormones
Everyone releases oxytocin when they perceive stress. Women also release oxytocin (nicknamed "the touch hormone" or "love hormone") during childbirth, breastfeeding and close physical contact. They give off estrogen as well, and that makes them want to cozy up and talk.
Men, however, release testosterone, which overrides oxytocin and makes them want to "man up." Fight translates as aggression or exercise, and flight means creating emotional distance, taking off and/or avoiding what's causing the stress.
Along with oxytocin and testosterone, cortisol (aka the stress hormone) is a big player for both genders. Long-term exposure to cortisol hurts the heart, brain, blood vessels, vital organs and immune system.
Overlooking the effects of stress
Long-term stress affects everyone's health—male or female—but often men don't realize it's affecting them. Dr. Peter Banitt, cardiologist at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon, says: "Short-term stress causes a wide range of symptoms, like elevated blood pressure and heart rate, headaches and stomachaches. If stress isn't relieved, eventually there's long-term damage like heart failure, coronary and other serious diseases. Men don't tend to deal with stress very well. They don't get help, and they try to tough it out. The result is that there are a lot of men with heart disease."
The Mayo Clinic lists the top 10 threats to men's health:
- Heart disease
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Kidney disease
- Alzheimer's disease
Guess how many of those things stress affects? All of them. It's a known fact that stress is directly related to heart disease, but a lot of evidence shows that stress makes all diseases worse. It decreases your ability to defend and heal. In terms of injury and suicide, it messes up men's ability to think clearly and behave normally.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests men don't do their quickest and most flexible thinking under stress. They have a hard time shifting their attention from one task to another. This may be why men seem to have more injuries from accidents and sports when they're under pressure.
Dr. Kyle Smoot, neurologist with the Oregon Clinic says, "I've seen an increase in men with stress-associated symptoms like headaches (migraines and tension-type headaches), numbness and tingling. Stress also makes symptoms worse in any patient with underlying neurologic conditions. For example, stress can cause an increase in seizures." Dr. Smoot says when men relieve stress through exercise, talking with friends or doing hobbies, they often feel physically better, too.
How can men reduce their stress? The first step is realizing you have a problem. Dr. Banitt says, "It's always enlightening to men when I suggest some of their physical problems are stress-related. Exercise, yoga and meditation are important tools for dealing with stress." Dr, Banitt admits he has problems with his work–life balance. "Anyone with a career and family juggles, and men don't always get it right. I meditate regularly, and it's really helpful physically and spiritually. There's a huge body of evidence supporting the health benefits of meditation."
Susan Pease Banitt, licensed clinical social worker with Lotus Health Counseling in Portland says, "Men are less in touch with feelings and how they relate to their bodies. They'll only look for help when they have physical problems like irritability, grumpiness, fatigue, muscle pain and tension. It's often the women in their lives that move them toward getting counseling. It's not until they're working on relaxation and stress relief they realize how stressed they are."
Pease Banitt says many men live with a constant level of stress. She prescribes a minimum of 10 minutes of relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga, twice a day, to lower their stress level. Many of her patients' stress symptoms go away within two weeks.
Published on Oct. 1, 2010; updated on May 6, 2014.