Experts who study humans who face stress (that would include everyone who breathes) have discovered something interesting: Men's and women's bodies respond differently to stressful life events.
Why is this important to know? Because understanding how you cope can improve what scientists call your resilience — your ability to rebound from a challenge or setback.
A number of studies have found that men display more evidence of the "fight or flight" response to stress. The theory is that as men evolved and faced physical challenges, their bodies adapted to overcome (fight) or escape (flight) the inevitable physical threats in their environment.
The fight or flight physical response helped your ancient ancestors survive a life-threatening attack from a possible predator situation. But that same heart-pumping, palm-sweating response is not so helpful for today's stressors that are mostly psychological — say, during a job interview, giving a speech or negotiating with a moody teen.
In fact, fight or flight can put a real damper on your life and mood. Scientists have found that when faced with stressful tasks, the sections of the male brain associated with vigilance and negative emotions fire up, suppressing activity in the brain associated with positive emotion and pleasure.
How do men adapt?
Researchers have noticed several trends in how men tend to cope with stress. They may be less likely to:
- Report symptoms of stress
- Participate in stress-relieving activities
- Say that they need emotional support
- Have a strong, diverse emotional support network.
It's important to point out that many men are aware of their stress level and work to manage it. The key is to understand how you respond to stress so you can develop an ongoing plan for resiliency.
When stress is a part of life, start by being aware
Resiliency doesn't mean you are free from struggles or stress. It means engaging in ongoing stress management practices and being prepared to withstand hardships with an ability to bounce back from adversity and grow despite life's challenges.
Increase your resiliency by simply noticing patterns and identifying how you're feeling. Some specific strategies:
- Listen to your body. Recognize signs like increased heart rate and clenched teeth, indicating you may be stressed.
- Write it down. Make a list of physical, behavioral and emotional responses. This gives you a moment to measure your reaction and pause before a response.
- Reflect. Understand what your mind is telling you during stress. Ask if the threat is real or whether stress is leading to irrational thoughts. Simply recognizing those thoughts will give you perspective.
During stressful situations, focus your attention on the present — be in the moment. This will reduce "what if?" thoughts, which only increase stress. Focus takes practice.
Try these ideas:
- Walk around your neighborhood or office. Look at details you might not have noticed before like the leaves on trees or architectural details. Be fully present as you take a few minutes to de-stress. Breathe deeply and calmly.
- Get moving. Exercise both prevents and helps you manage stress.
- Plan positive activities with your friends and loved ones.
Take care of yourself
Not everything is in your control. A good strategy to manage stressful situations that you can't change is to prepare yourself.
- Get enough sleep. A well-rested body deals with stress better than an exhausted one.
- Exercise regularly. Moving your body reduces stress by releasing tension and increasing endorphins.
- Limit alcohol use. Alcohol is a depressant and will make your stress feel larger and harder to tackle.
- Eat a healthy diet. A healthy body absorbs stress better than an unhealthy one.
- Do at least one thing you enjoy every day. Fun time reduces worry time.
- Spend time with loved ones. It'll remind you of what's really important.
- Ask for help. Sometimes we just can't deal with everything ourselves. Seeking help from others isn't a sign of weakness but a healthy move of connection and trust.
And always talk to your doctor if you need professional counseling or a quality stress management program.