How many times in the last month or year did you say “I am stressed!”? Stress appears to be something “natural” in modern life and it affects people of all genders and backgrounds. It is, in fact, a physiological or emotional response to challenges, but when chronic, it can have profound physical and psychological consequences.
This article explores the specific experience of stress in men, shedding light on its causes, symptoms, impact, coping mechanisms, and the importance of seeking help when needed.
What is stress?
The term ‘stress’ is used to refer to a number of different processes, either in the scientific world and colloquially. We use it to talk about life events or situations that happen to a person or to refer to the cognitive, emotional, and biological reactions that such situations evoke.1
From a biological perspective, our body works constantly to maintain the so-called homeostasis, a state of dynamic equilibrium where everything is perfectly balanced. In this context, stress occurs when homeostasis is threatened or perceived to be so and it is counteracted by inherited feedback mechanisms, finely regulated by the central nervous system working closely with the endocrine system, aimed to reestablish the balance.2
Whatever context we are referring to, we can say that any factor that disturbs or alters the body or mind's state of balance may be defined as a ‘stressor’ and can lead to a stress response in an individual, impacting their physical and mental well-being.2,3
A stressor can be either internal and external and can encompass physical, environmental-cultural, metabolic, psychological, emotional, and dietary elements. Common examples of things that may cause stress include:
- Health-related factors: illness or injury
- Work-related factors: pressure in the workplace, unemployment or retirement
- Family-related factors: relationship conflicts, divorce or losing someone
- Money-related factors: unexpected bills or financial difficulties
- Environmental factors: like noise or pollution
By triggering the body's stress response, these stressors lead to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
It's important to highlight that not all stressors are negative; some positive events, like moving to a different city or starting a new job or habits such as physical activity, can also be stressors because they introduce significant changes and challenges into one's life.
How individuals perceive and respond to stressors can vary widely, influencing their overall stress levels and health outcomes. Chronic or high-intensity stressors can have detrimental effects on a variety of physiological functions, including growth, metabolism, reproduction, and immune competence, as well as on behaviour and personality development.2
Understanding and managing stressors is crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being.
Let’s now explore the specific experience of stress in men, pointing out potential gender differences in stress response and looking for useful coping mechanisms.
Men and stress
While stress affects everyone, men may experience it differently. This can be due to societal expectations and gender norms but also to a gender-specific pattern that may be partly attributed to the effects of sex hormones. By measuring the physiological responses of two main directors of the stress response, the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system, researchers have found greater acute responses in adult men as compared to adult women.
This would lead for men to higher levels of aggression, an increase in cardiovascular disease, and decreased immune functioning.4
The stress response in men would be characterised by a ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, while women tend to have a ‘tend-and-befriend’ approach. Neuroendocrine and behavioural evidence support this hypothesis, but it is worth highlighting that there is a need to explore more the neurobiological underpinnings of this difference and the determinants of the environmental influence on the stress reaction.4
The last point to consider is the relationship between testosterone, stress, and pain, that may impact the perception of chronic pain in men. A study in young males found out that during stressful situations, the pain sensation may be increased by decreases in the level of testosterone, increases in cortisol, and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. So people may perceive more pain when stressed due in part to activation of the HPA axis and lower hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis activity.5
Causes of stress in men
Although the way we process stress depends on a multitude of factors, such as culture, personal and religious beliefs, early experiences, and genetic factors, it is possible to identify common causes of stress in men.
Society often expects men to be stoic and self-reliant, discouraging emotional expression. These expectations can lead to bottling up emotions, contributing to stress.
In addition, men often face work-related stressors, including career pressures, long hours, and job instability, and all these factors may contribute to their stress levels. Work-related stress is also common in women. A heavy workload, problems within the physical environment (e.g. noise, lack of windows, small rooms, temperature), long working hours, and understaffing have all been reported as causes of stress in the workplace.6
Personal life and relationships can be significant sources of stress as well, and the way men navigate challenges in their personal lives and relationships can compound stress.
Signs and symptoms of stress
It is important for men to recognize the symptoms of stress, so they can manage it effectively.
We can identify physical and psychological signs and symptoms of stress.
At the body level, they include:
- Stomach cramps, constipation or diarrhoea
- Headaches, dizziness, fatigue
- Skin problems
- Chest pain, pounding heart, high blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Diminished or increased sex drive
- Muscle pain
- Clenched jaws and grinding teeth
Psychological signs and symptoms that may be experienced are:
- Mood swings
- Feeling worried or anxious
- Being irritable, angry or decreased anger control
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Struggle to make decisions, racing thoughts
- Decreased productivity
Stress can also make us behave differently and it may impact:
- How much we eat and exercise (with the risk of overeating or fasting)
- Use of alcohol and drugs
- The frequency of smoking
Recognising signs and symptoms of stress early on may help avoid stress from escalating to a chronic level.
Impact of stress on men
Stress is directly linked with health and well-being. We already mentioned illness and other health problems as potential stressors for the body. It is also true that feeling stressed can create physical and psychological issues, although stress-related outcomes vary according to personal and environmental factors.3
There is a cascade of changes in the nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems following the perception of an acute stressful event. This acute stress response is generally adaptive in the short term but can become maladaptive if it is repeatedly or continuously activated.3
Chronic stimulation of the cardiovascular system due to stress can lead to increases in blood pressure and vascular hypertrophy.3 Stress has, in fact, been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks.7
In addition, stress impacts the immune system and the inflammatory response and it may be implicated, via different mechanisms, in the pathogenesis of chronic inflammation and immune-related disease.2
Moreover, the stress system is involved in the regulation of gastrointestinal function and exhibits a strong association with gastrointestinal illness. Stress plays a role in altering gastrointestinal motility patterns, and it is interesting to report that while acute stress stimulates colonic motor function, chronic stress seems to decrease colonic motility.2
Stress also has emotional effects and, when prolonged, can contribute to burnout, anxiety and depression, although other variables such as prior psychiatric history, neuroticism, gender, and sociodemographic factors, play a role in mental illness.2
Now, what to do? There are different strategies to deal with stress, but the first step is recognizing it and trying to identify the cause.
It is important to avoid bad coping mechanisms, such as substance use or avoidance, because these can do more harm than good. Be also aware that being constantly connected to social media and digital devices, in general, watching the news, drinking, and smoking are all things that may add more stress to your life.
Promoting healthy coping mechanisms is vital. There are some things you can do to help yourself:
- Deep breathing and meditation: to calm your body and your brain in just a few minutes
- Exercise: Even a short walk has its benefits and can get you into a different frame of mind
- Prioritise rest: Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep
- As a man, your To-Do list may be full of things to do, and this can feel overwhelming. Try to reduce your workload when possible and learn time management skills to minimise stressors and better manage the ones you cannot avoid
- One of the keys to stress management is having supportive people in your life. Don’t be afraid to reach out to family members or friends when needed or get professional help
Frequently asked questions
What is stress?
Stress is the body's response to demanding situations. It's a natural reaction, but chronic stress can have negative consequences on physical and mental health.
How does stress affect men differently?
Men may experience stress differently due to societal expectations and gender norms that discourage emotional expression and biological differences that can lead to unique challenges in managing stress.
What are the common causes of stress in men?
Common causes of stress in men include work-related pressures, personal life challenges, and relationship issues.
What are healthy coping mechanisms for stress?
Healthy coping mechanisms for stress include exercise, breathing and meditation, seeking support from loved ones, and prioritising tasks and activities to reduce workload.
How can workplaces support men in managing stress?
Workplaces can support men by promoting work-life balance, providing mental health resources, and addressing any problem that may arise in an effective way.
In conclusion, stress is something everyone has to deal with at times, but how we perceive and respond to stressors can vary widely, influencing our overall stress levels and health outcomes.
Men can have a slightly different experience compared to women, and this can be related to various factors, like societal norms and expectations and biological differences.
When stressed, we can experience both physical and psychological symptoms, and it is important to identify them and look for possible causes or ‘stressors’ that may be health, work, family or money-related.
Chronic or high-intensity stressors can have detrimental effects on body and mind health. Understanding and managing stressors are crucial for maintaining overall well-being. Strategies you can use to help yourself are, for example, breathing and meditation, as well as exercise and good rest. Practical steps like revising the priorities in the to-do list and talking to someone close or to a professional can also help you navigate difficult and stressful times.
- Epel ES, Crosswell AD, Mayer SE, Prather AA, Slavich GM, Puterman E, et al. More than a feeling: A unified view of stress measurement for population science. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology [Internet]. 1 april 2018 [cited 22 september 2023];49:146–69. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091302218300219
- Tsigos C, Kyrou I, Kassi E, Chrousos GP. Stress: endocrine physiology and pathophysiology. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Blackman MR, Boyce A, Chrousos G, Corpas E, et al.,editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000 [cited 22 september 2023]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK278995/
- Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol [Internet]. 2005 [cited 22 september 2023];1:607–28.Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/
- Verma R, Balhara YPS, Gupta CS. Gender differences in stress response: Role of developmental and biological determinants. Ind Psychiatry J [Internet]. 2011[cited 22 september 2023];20(1):4–10. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3425245/
- Choi JC, Chung MI, Lee YD. Modulation of pain sensation by stress-related testosterone and cortisol: Modulation of pain sensation by stress-related testosterone and cortisol. Anaesthesia [Internet]. october 2012 [cited 22 september 2023];67(10):1146–51. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2044.2012.07267.x
- Bhui K, Dinos S, Galant-Miecznikowska M, de Jongh B, Stansfeld S. Perceptions of work stress causes and effective interventions in employees working in public, private and non-governmental organisations: a qualitative study. BJPsych Bull [Internet]. December 2016 [cited 22 september 2023]; 40(6):318–25. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5353523/
- Chi JS, Kloner RA. Stress and myocardial infarction. Heart [Internet]. may 2003 [cited 22 september 2023];89(5):475–6. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1767636/