Is stress harder on men?

Men react differently from women when it comes to stress. Here’s how to help him cope

Is stress harder on men?

Source: Best Health magazine, December 2012; Image: Thinkstock

Between work deadlines, family responsibilities and endless household tasks, most of us can’t help but feel stressed out. You know for yourself what puts you on edge and what helps you cope. But what about the man in your life? Mental health researchers and therapists say men don’t show when they’re distressed the same way women do. Here’s some inside info on the nature of male stress.

His biggest trigger

When researchers want to get a stress response from women subjects, they expose them to social rejection, says Robert-Paul Juster, a researcher at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal. With men, they give them difficult tasks, and watch their heart rates and frustration levels rise.

It’s the workplace where guys find their biggest stressors. ‘Men can often feel they have to outperform everyone else,’ says Wesley Moore, a psychotherapist in Ottawa. ‘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.’ Things such as being misunderstood by co-workers, not getting credit for their efforts or feeling like they’re not moving ahead in their career are hot points for guys. Many men derive at least some of their identity from being the provider, so losing a job, taking a position with lower pay or having a spouse who makes more may stress them out.

How he shows it

According to Juster, when put under stress women report feeling upset. Meanwhile, guys don’t show when they’re feeling the pressure’but their stress-activated hormones actually spike higher than women’s. Moore sees his male clients develop symptoms such as gastrointestinal problems or headaches. They may just ‘suck it up,’ though, so they don’t appear vulnerable or weak. ‘Men die younger than women, and stress could be one reason,’ says Juster. Guys have long been the leaders in stress-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers, but the incidence rate among women is catching up. (One reason may be because we’re in the workforce in greater numbers now and more likely to experience work-triggered stress.)

A guy might not talk about what’s going on, but he may reveal things aren’t going well by being angry behind the wheel or shouting at the game on TV. And in more dire situations, that anger can turn into violence. ‘Anger is the one emotion that’s accessible for many men to help them cope with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings,’ says Moore. But becoming angry avoids the problem’and can create new ones’as does getting absorbed in a video game, drinking with buddies or other avoidant types of behaviour, which Moore says many men do to deal with stress.

What you can do to help

Guys often find someone to blame when stressed, and seek out a quick solution, says Moore. Many stress-causing issues at work or home cannot be resolved easily, though; men need to be patient and work on changing their own perceptions when they can’t change the situation.

Talking can prevent feelings from being bottled up and coming out as potentially passive or aggressive behaviour, but Moore says a man might need encouragement to express his feelings. As well, he might need a nudge to find a release such as indulging in a hobby. It’s a plus if that leisure time involves being active: Exercise is associated with better mental health and stress control. Plus, a 2012 study out of the University of Glasgow found people who exercise outdoors have half the mental health risks of those who exercise inside.

But be cautious how you speak. Moore says the best approach is to say things like: ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been under pressure lately. Is there something you’d like to talk about?’ Your supportive efforts will be worth it: Juster says research reveals that men are less stressed when their partners are around.

But if his stress gets worse, or if he shows signs of depression or even has thoughts of suicide, he needs to talk to a professional.

You can help him locate a therapist who has experience treating men by speaking to your family doctor or discreetly asking friends and co-workers if they can recommend someone.

Above all, be non-judgmental, and let him know that you understand his problems and want to work with him to find a solution. Says Moore: ‘The main thing is to approach his problems with understanding, an open mind and compassion.’

This article was originally titled "Is he feeling frazzled?" in the December 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!