We all experience stress in our lives, but we don’t talk about it enough – men especially – but there is growing interest in the topic – upon this writing, “men and stress” catches 239,000,000 Google results.
I spoke to a couple of stress experts through the Distress Centres Ontario (DCO), a provincial organization that provides support services to lonely, depressed, and suicidal people, often via a 24-hour crisis line.
DCO presented “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Stress”, focusing on how to shift from a stress reaction to a support response in our body.
Asha Croggan and Arianne Richeson co-presented the learning event – Asha provides support to crisis lines and suicide networks across Canada and is the Provincial Programs Manager for Suicide and Mental Health Networks, and Arianne Richeson is the Manager of Educational Service at Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region. Below are some of their findings from the presentation:
1) Men and women respond to stress differently – the difference between “fight or flight” and “care or share”.
2) Our autonomic nervous system is responding in every second to every feeling we experience. This means that even when we feel we are “handling it well”, our bodies may still be experiencing a stress response.
3) Science has shown that we actually transmit these feelings through the electromagnetic field of the heart. The brain has an electromagnetic field of 1″ from the body … the heart’s electromagnetic field is 4 feet from the body.
4) Cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, continues to cycle up to 12 hours after a stress reaction in the body. This results in poorer/disrupted sleep which in turn lowers our ability to respond effectively to stress.
5) Emotions that have a depleting effect on our bodies – worry, frustration, and anger – create cortical inhibition (cortical = cerebral cortex – the brain’s outer layer central to memory, attention, perceptual awareness, language, thought, and consciousness) which in turn diminishes the brain’s capacity to problem-solve, recall coping strategies, and effectively communicate. Renewing feelings such as gratitude, joy, and enthusiasm that have a supportive effect on the body and helps to open the mind. (It also draws good things to you.)
Men and women not only experience stress differently, they are subject to gender-specific stresses. In Is stress harder on men?, Ottawa psychotherapist Wesley Moore says that especially at work, “men often feel they have to outperform everyone else. This can be a huge source of pressure, especially if there is also an internal dialogue that he must be the ‘breadwinner’ for his family.”
Women often have support networks for times of stress, but men are less likely to ask for help or talk about their situations, which makes them vulnerable to stress-related problems; not feeling that he has an outlet to release his stress will keep it trapped in the mind and the body.
To dodge the stress in their lives, men are more likely to engage in some kind of distraction – amusement of new toys or hobbies, or the darker road of pornography and chemical distraction – alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; a friend of mine told me he got over the grief of a break up by “going to sleep” when he felt overwhelmed by sadness, as he was unable to process the emotions.
Distracted or not, men experiencing stressful situations like interpersonal problems, financial difficulties, and violence “were linked to psychological problems, such as anxiety, mental distress, and lack of coherence,” according to a 2002 Finnish study.
Quite often, stress is in the eye of the beholder – it is something perceived in the brain, not necessarily real in 3D reality. A stressed brain can be overwhelming, but there are lots of easy ways to cope with it and calm it down. Asha and Arianne compiled some simple ways to deal with stress, beginning with becoming conscious of it:
1) Be aware of your stress alarms and triggers. Your body uses symptoms to express when it is in a stress response. Once you understand this “language” you can become more aware of how often you are under stress, and recognize the alarms when they go off. Common stress alarms are headaches, digestion issues, irritation, withdrawal, over/under eating. Reflect on the stress alarms you experience physically, emotionally, and behaviourally. This will help you to better determine the triggers in your life, so you can prepare for them.
2) Take your “emotional pulse” throughout the day. The body is responding in every moment to how you “feel”. Your emotions set off a cascade of over 1,500 biochemical reactions and responses in the body. Pause throughout the day to take your emotional pulse and see whether you feel a depleting or renewing emotion.
3) Shift through breathing. A critical tool you have in your “stress toolkit” is your breath. Calm yourself by simply becoming aware of your breath. Slow the breath down so it is deeper than normal.
4) Choose healthy debriefing. It is important and healthy to recognize when an event has affected you, and to reach out to share how you are feeling.
5) Use the P.A.U.S.E. Approach: When you recognize you are experiencing stress:
- Pause. Catch your breath. Take a moment so you can choose to respond rather than react.
- Ask yourself. Is this true? Is this important? Is this something I truly need to deal with now?
- Use your tools. Utilize your coping and communication skills, breathing exercises, and if need be, take some space so you can calm yourself and assess next steps.
- Self-care. A stressed mind is a closed mind. Practice self-care so you can slow the stress reaction in your body. A coherent, calm body supports stronger memory, creative problem-solving and communication – all important skills in responding to stress.
- Express yourself. Express how you feel, set your boundaries, debrief with someone you trust, or reach out for professional support.
We all feel stress weighing heavily upon us for all sorts of reasons, but please don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you’re in need. There is support all over the world, and volunteers eager to listen without judgement.
Some distress organizations in Canada and worldwide: