Stress is part of life. And its causes – work, kids, family, health, money, lack of downtime – are similar for both men and women. Although most men don’t report being stressed, they are likely to develop chronic illnesses linked to high levels of stress. Over time, uncontrolled stress suppresses the immune system and increases the risk for heart disease, stroke, depression, and a host of other chronic health conditions.1,2 Recognizing the symptoms of stress is the first step to tackling them and getting you on course to living the healthy, productive life you want.

Gender-Specific Stress Responses

When an individual is stressed, the brain releases cortisol and epinephrine, the hormones that trigger the body's "fight-or-flight" response. This happens whether you're a man or a woman. But there are also several gender-specific differences in responding to stress, according to studies that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare brain activity in men and women.1,2

In these two studies, when men were faced with a stressful task, areas of the brain associated with vigilance and negative emotions fired up more than in women doing the same task. In men, brain regions associated with positive emotions and pleasure were suppressed in response to the stressful task. 

Another study proposed that gender-specific stress responses might be related to three hormones: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin.3 When stressed, the female brain releases more oxytocin, which counters the effects of cortisol and epinephrine by promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions. The researchers coined this the “tend and befriend” response, suggesting that a woman is more inclined to reduce stress by nurturing those around her (tend) and reaching out to others (befriend). Because the male brain produces less oxytocin during the stress response, a man tends to be more disposed to fight-or-flight behavior. 

The fight-or-flight physical response helped our ancient ancestors survive life-threatening attacks from possible predators. However, that same heart-pumping, palm-sweating response is not so helpful for today's typical psychological stressors – giving a presentation, paying your mortgage, negotiating with a moody teen, etc. 

The “Suck It Up” Mentality is Hurting Men

In addition to the physiological differences between the male and female stress response, there are multiple psychological, cultural, and societal factors that influence how an individual manages stress. For example, in the United States many men grow up with the expectation that they should “bottle things up” and refrain from asking for help.4,5 Research shows that men are less likely than women to recognize or admit they are stressed and to seek out mental health support.6-8

But "manning up" is not an effective solution. According to a 2018 World Health Organization report, three times as many men as women die by suicide in high-income countries.9 And data from Mental Health America shows that more than six million U.S. men experience symptoms of depression each year, while more than three million experience an anxiety disorder.10

Become Aware of Stress Symptoms

Before you can take action to manage stress, you need to recognize it. What does stress look like for you? Common behaviors and symptoms that accompany stress include:5,11

  • Being consistently tired
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Sleep problems
  • Smoking or using tobacco
  • Being irritable or angry 
  • Muscle aches and pains 
  • Increased heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Drinking alcohol or using drugs to cope or calm down
  • Chest pain 
  • Feeling restless or anxious
  • Feeling down or sad
  • Stomach upset 
  • Sexual problems: Lack of desire, inability to have an erection, or premature ejaculation

Too much stress can lead to depression, which, in men, often manifests as irritability, anger, hostility, aggressiveness, risk taking, and escape behavior. Self-medicating with alcohol and other substances is also a common symptom of male depression.5,8,10,11

Managing Stress

There are many tactics that can reduce the effects of stress, help you feel better, and get things back on track.5,11

  1. Get enough sleep. A well-rested body always deals with stress better than an exhausted one. To improve your sleep, try these science-backed tactics: go to bed and get up at the same time every day; stay off your cell phone or computer one hour before bedtime; stop drinking alcohol a few hours before going to bed; keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  2. Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces stress by releasing tension and increasing endorphins (the feel-good hormones).
  3. Limit alcohol use. Alcohol is a depressant and will make your stress feel larger and harder to tackle. Instead of self-medicating with alcohol to take the edge off, you may find supporting your body with nutritional supplements is a healthier option to managing stress.*
  4. Eat healthy. A healthy diet helps counter the impacts of stress by shoring up the immune system and helping your body function properly. 
  5. Do one thing you enjoy every day. It’s easy to get lost in a to-do list, so making time for the things you enjoy is fundamental to reducing stress and feeling happy. Do something you already know you like to do, or start doing something you’ve always wanted to do.   And do it regularly. 
  6. Spend time with loved ones. It'll remind you of what's really important in life.
  7. Tell someone. Sometimes you just can't deal with everything on your own. Seeking input from someone you trust is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s a show of strength and a way to take control of your situation and get things back on track. Reach out by sharing what is bothering you with a friend, a family member, your doctor, a counselor, or a therapist. 
  8. Try a mind-body practice. There are many types of yoga, tai chi, and meditation that can help get your mind off your troubles and offset stress. These practices have been around for centuries for a reason – because they work.  

For more suggestions on ways to handle stress, we recommend: Science-backed Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety During a Crisis.

The bottom line: Men, you do experience stress, even if you don’t recognize it or admit it. And that stress is hurting you. Recognizing the symptoms of stress is the first step to managing stress and getting you on course to living the healthy, productive life you want.


References

  1. Verma R, Balhara Y, Gupta C. Gender differences in stress response: Role of developmental and biological determinants. Ind Psychiatry J 2011;20(1):4-10. 
  2. Wang J, Korczykowski M, Rao H, et al. Gender difference in neural response to psychological stress. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2007;2(3):227-239. 
  3. Taylor S, Klein L, Lewis B, et al. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychol Rev 2000;107:411-429. 
  4. Real T. I don't want to talk about it: overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. 1st Fireside ed. New York: Fireside; 1998.
  5. Mayo Clinic. Male depression: understanding the issues. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/male-depression/art-20046216. [Accessed August 7, 2020.]
  6. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: gender and stress. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2011/gender. [Accessed Aug. 10, 2020.]
  7. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: paying with our health. 2015. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2014/stress-report.pdf. [Accessed Aug. 10, 2020.]
  8. Ogrodniczuk J, Oliffe J, Kuhl D, Gross P. Men's mental health: Spaces and places that work for men. Can Fam Physician 2016;62(6):463-464. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4907547/ [Accessed August 18, 2020.]
  9. World Health Organization. National suicide prevention strategies: progress, examples and indicators. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/national-suicide-prevention-strategies-progress-examples-and-indicators. [Accessed August 7, 2020.]
  10. Mental Health America. Info graphic: mental health for men. https://www.mhanational.org/infographic-mental-health-men. [Accessed August 10, 2020.] 
  11. Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: effects on your body and behavior. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987. [Accessed August 10, 2020.]