We all suffer from stress every now and then. In fact, whether you have a crucial report to finish or are about to compete in the Olympic men's 100 metres final, stress can help to make sure you perform to the best of your ability.
But when excessive mental pressure starts to creep into everyday life, problems can occur. Stress has been singled out as a contributing factor in a huge range of common male ailments, from heart disease to insomnia.
And our problems with stress are compounded by the fact that men don't deal with it well. Experts believe that evolution has prepared women better to cope with the stresses of 21st century life. That's the bad news. The good news is that men can immunise themselves from the worst effects of stress in a few easy steps. Here are the facts you need to know about stress, and how you can combat it.
What is stress?
Stress is mental or emotional pressure that makes you feel you can't cope. We all have a different tolerance to stress, and one person's stressful situation might be another's golden opportunity. The fact is, we all feel stressed from time to time. It's fine in short bursts. If it lingers long-term, stress can be damaging.
Why do we get stressed?
We get stressed because stress can be useful. When we were hunting, brawling cavemen, stress prompted the 'fight or flight' response, flooding our systems with adrenaline and preparing us to confront or flee from danger.
Stress was a short-term answer to a short-term problem, and that's when it works best. But we rarely get into dangerous situations these days. Instead, the pressures of modern life can trigger our stress response, whether that means a mountain of work or problems at home.
"Almost anything can cause stress if it makes you feel angry, tense, frustrated or unhappy," says GP Dr Sarah Brewer, author of Cut Your Stress
. "Stress can result from work, finances, relationships, bereavement, your environment or your interaction with certain people. The common underlying theme is often change. Too much change, too quickly, is highly stressful especially when it is imposed on you without your consent."
That's when stress can become chronic, an inappropriate evolutionary response to modern life. Many of us find it impossible to switch off from the pressures of the 21st century, which can feel like they're always with us.
What problems are caused by stress?
In the short term too much stress can cause insomnia and irritability. In men it can lead to anxiety and a low sex drive. Stressed people sometimes find it hard to make decisions, and turn to caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol more often.
Chronic stress can also lead to digestive problems, sweating and headaches. And in the long term it might raise your risk of heart attacks and strokes, according to a study last year by researchers at University College, London. The study discovered that, when people were put into stressful situations, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol increased. Cortisol can cause arteries to narrow.
"This study shows a clearcut relationship between stress and coronary artery disease. This is the first clear proof," said Professor Avijit Lahiri, a cardiologist who led the study.
Why do women deal better with stress than men?
When men and women hit a stressful situation, we both release 'fight or flight' hormones. But women counter that with the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect the 'tend and befriend' reaction.
In stressful situations women gather loved ones around them, talk problems through and enlist shoulders to cry on. That may have been a less effective response to a charging woolly mammoth, but it's spot on when your partner has left you or the boss is being a tyrant. Women resolve modern stresses more quickly, meaning the harm stress does is kept to a minimum.
It's also true, says Dr Brewer, that men are more likely to become addicted to the 'buzz' of stress. "In general, men are more likely to take risks and to be 'stress addicts' than women."
But though they may enjoy stress for a while, it will catch up with them. "If they don't slow down, they are heading for high blood pressure and a heart attack or stroke," says Dr Brewer.
How can men combat stress?
Given the success of the 'tend and befriend' model, the best thing men can do to combat stress is to act a little more like women. Oxytocin makes women confide in friends, get support and garner good advice. That's the first thing men should do too. Don't let problems fester. Confide in others and get allies on your side.
In the short term, alleviate stress by taking a refreshing nap or a brisk walk. Exercise is a particularly good idea because it works off the adrenaline-fuelled energy rush in the healthiest possible way. "Exercise helps to reset the 'flight or fight' reaction back towards the 'rest and digest' response," says Dr Brewer.
And then, be positive. You might not be able to solve the big problem today, but you can probably solve little problems that give you back a feeling of control. "Prepare for stressful situations in advance. Get organised so that stress can't creep up unawares," says Dr Brewer. "Learn to say no without guilt when you've already got plenty to do."
Finally, learn techniques to help you relax. If a long soak in a hot bath or your favourite CD doesn't do it, find a quiet spot and breathe slowly and deeply. Then gently tense and relax every part of your body, starting with your feet and working your way up. At the same time, let your mind empty of all distracting thoughts you might find it easier to focus on a calm, serene place like a forest glade or a deserted beach.
Try and stay like that for 20 minutes. If you practise the technique enough you'll be able to use it whenever you feel overwhelmed by modern life, and you'll be nipping stress in the bud before it can cause you any lasting damage.
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