Feeling stressed? You’re not alone. Turns out, stress is a natural part of life, and can even be good for us on occasion. And if we could all learn to accept and manage the tough times a little better, we wouldn’t have to worry about the ways stress can negatively affect our physical health over time.
Interestingly, the steps you take to reduce stress comes down to whether or not you identify as a man or a woman. Part hormones, part societal expectations, your gender can play a large role in how you are impacted by stress and how you deal with stressful situations.
For men and women, both the sources of their stress and the way they handle it is as different as night and day. While women are particularly susceptible to stress due to juggling family and work expectations, men tend to find it more difficult when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. In other words, women tend to have more ongoing stressors than men and are therefore stressed out more often than their male peers. And men? While they may not feel stressed as often, when it hits—it hits hard and manifests more physically.
BOYS DON’T CRY?
Because men have been taught that vulnerability is a sign of weakness from a young age, they quickly learn to hold back their tears and bottle up their feelings, resulting in feelings of shame (or even fear) when it comes to showing emotion or asking for help.
Repressed feelings can be problematic for a variety of reasons – in large part because some men don’t have an outlet for their emotions or feel comfortable asking for help. For this reason, they haven’t received as much practice when it comes to coping with high-stress situations.
One study found that the lower levels of oxytocin in a man’s body results in a “fight or flight” response to stress. So when life gets hard, men act out or choose an escape activity over talking things out or seeking professional help.
Recognizing signs of stress in men is the first step to doing something about it. There are a number of psychological and physical symptoms to look out for, including things like chest pain, low sex drive, social withdrawal and increased smoking. It won’t come as a shock, then, that nurturing your mental health is just as important as staying fit—especially considering long-term stress can lead to the worsening of existing health conditions and even shortened lifespan. If you’re feelings of stress just won’t go away, remember, there is no shame in seeking help. Any feelings of inadequacy or shame are simply a societal construct.
SUPERWOMAN? MORE LIKE SUPER STRESSED
Much of the stress women experience is closely related to feeling like they have to do it all while caring for everyone—and putting themselves last. Not only that, but this over-extended half of the population (aptly nicknamed “superwomen”) are still expected to keep Pinterest-worthy homes, cook Instagram-worthy meals, and post Facebook-worthy selfies. (Yes, social media is part of the problem.)
Not only that, but for women in the “sandwich generation” especially, it is often their job to take care of their children and their parents, even if that means their own health falls by the wayside as a result. And no wonder, from a very young age, little girls are taught to nurture and care for their baby dolls while their male peers are building towers, railway lines and mini empires.
Okay, okay. There is a silver lining here. Unlike men, women have been granted societal permission to talk about their emotions. So if they’re having a bad day, they can vent to a friend. If they’re having a bad month, they might consider talk therapy—with a lot less shame or fear of judgment than the men in their lives may encounter. And somewhat ironically, one study reported that the act of “tending and befriending” (a.k.a. helping others) can actually help women combat stress. Interestingly, the reasons here aren’t social, but hormonal. Women are born with higher levels of oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone,” so helping others can actually make them feel good. How’s that for a complete 360?
But here’s the thing, while men are more likely to use distraction methods to deal with stress (e.g., playing a round of golf or meeting the guys for a pint), women tend to ruminate, making it more difficult to get out of their stressed or depressed state. That said, more and more women are jumping on the risky drinking bandwagon, to the detriment of their physical health. Drinking after a long, hard day at work, or sipping on “mommy juice” once the kids are in bed are behaviours that are leading to new alcohol-related health issues for women.
Why? Because women’s bodies do not tolerate alcohol as well as men’s. Women are more vulnerable to liver disease and loss of brain function. And alcohol consumption can also increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer during her lifetime. There’s a concerning trend around wine binge-drinking as a coping mechanism for today’s generation of moms. Although humorous and relatable as a Facebook meme, in truth it’s a poor choice of escaping the source of stress instead of dealing with it.
If you want to deal with your stress in a healthy way, the first step is acknowledging it. There are a number of signs to look out for, like poor memory, hostility, poor digestion and eating disorders. Find a comprehensive list of symptoms here.
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
Stress may be a mental health issue, but its effects certainly aren’t invisible. The truth is, stress can impact our physical health just as drastically as it can our emotions. For men, stress can show up in the following ways: belly fat, type 2 diabetes, death, early heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. Not to mention stress can result in lower sperm count and can even be passed on through sperm,
Women’s stress can result in irregular periods, acne breakouts, hair loss, poor digestion, decreased fertility, increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Stress isn’t “just in your head.” It impacts various parts of your body, and can even lead to death in extreme cases. For Mental Health Awareness Month, why not do what you can to minimize and manage your stress? It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself and your loved ones.
And while you’re at it – let’s do away with these harmful lessons we’re teaching our boys and unattainable labels we’re passing onto our girls. How? By making expressions like “superwoman,” “man up” and “boys don’t cry” bad words in your household.
To your (mental) health!