Whether you’d like to admit it or not, stress is probably playing some sort of role in your life. It’s a six-letter word that can deprive you of sleep, make you less productive at work, and cause tension in your family. Stress can pop up in so many areas of life that it’s difficult to name them all — from financial woes to the death of a loved one to troubles at work, varying levels of anxiety can be present at almost every turn. The trick is to recognize stress and figure out ways to manage it so you can move on quickly and not let it become like quicksand.
It’s important to know stress triggers, as men and women tend to react differently to various situations. Men are much more likely to view work as a stressor, for example, but aren’t quite as likely to get worked up about financial problems or the economy, according to the American Psychological Association. Women tend to share their stress with others, and become more vocally social about what’s got them worried. Men, on the other hand, tend to withdraw a little more and remain quiet about what’s bothering them. If a couple is stressed out about the same or varying things, it can cause a strain on the relationship.
Scientifically speaking, there’s a reason the sexes handle stress differently. No matter the gender, stress causes a spike in epinephrine and cortisol, which together raise blood pressure. (Cortisol also lowers the effectiveness of the immune system, which is why you’re more susceptible to getting sick when you’re extremely stressed.) Both men and women’s brains release the hormone oxytocin, which works to counteract the stress-inducing hormones and tries to create a more relaxed feeling in the body. But women’s brains release more oxytocin, so men are often left feeling more stressed. Because of this, men often biologically resort to the traditional “fight or flight” responses — they choose to bottle up the stressors, or fight back.
There’s a psychological explanation for why men tend to become more stressed about work objectives than women, psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt told WebMD. Male self-esteem is often built around performance measures, so they become more stressed when that is in question. (Women, for what it’s worth, tend to become more stressed about relationship tensions.) “Men tend to let their rival’s efforts or their employer’s agenda set the level of their demand, losing focus on the self to preoccupation with winning or attaining an extrinsic objective,” Pickhardt said. “Achieving a winning performance at all costs is how many men enter stress.”
Knowing what causes stress can be the first step to handling it. But if you’re dating or married to someone who handles stress differently than you, their suggestions might not be all that helpful even if they have the best of intentions. Take a look at some ways to handle stress that are specific to you — for the sake of yourself and those you care about.
1. Have a routine for planned stress
No matter your best efforts, there’s likely to be stressors in your life you know will pop up. You have a scheduled presentation for your supervisors at work each week, you know there’s a time of month when finances get tight, or your family schedules a vacation that means a little more stress than R&R. Having a process for dealing with these expected stresses will limit their negative effects.
It’s much like how Detroit Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups handles free throws in high-stakes games, he told Men’s Health. “I know it’s a big shot, but I don’t even think about the moment. If I put more pressure on it, then it becomes a mental thing. I treat it the same as a free throw in the first quarter by doing the same routine every single time. I focus on the rim. I take four dribbles, spin the ball, and get up under it. My routine puts me into a calm state. It’s just me and the rim.”
You might not have a game to tie, but if you treat the big meeting like any other one — prepare, and not put any extra mental emphasis on it — you’ll be able to move forward instead of being paralyzed by extra pressure.
2. Get moving
Exercise isn’t just good for weight loss and heart health — it’s also good for relieving stress. Harvard Health Publications explains exercise not only reduces stress hormones like cortisol (mentioned above), but it also increases endorphins that naturally improve your mood.
Exercise isn’t a guaranteed fix for everyone, says author Daniel Smith, who overcame his own bouts of serious anxiety. But getting regular exercise — such as a quick, hard run — often helps relieve the most oppressive symptoms that stress can have. “You can break the pattern of circular thoughts by exercising regularly to remove yourself from that place of worry and release endorphins,” Smith said. Plus, getting regular exercise can help to reduce the risk of developing an anxiety disorder over the following years, which helps to make sure your occasional stress doesn’t balloon into worries that are more serious.
There’s no need to start some sketchy breathing exercises if it’s not really your thing. But when you’re stressed, the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in your bloodstream get a little out of whack, Smith said. Breathing deeply through your nose for four counts and then through your mouth for another six counts will help you to relax, he explained.
Breathing is something you do in every moment of every day. But the American Institute of Stress says that focused breathing can have a profound effect on stress relief. “Abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes each day will reduce anxiety and reduce stress,” the institute says. “Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body — it brings your awareness away from the worries in your head and quiets your mind.” The reason, the institute explains, is that extra oxygen going to your brain stimulates the nervous system and produces a state of calmness.
On top of the institute’s advice, Harvard Health Publications provides steps to practice breathing that can help reduce stress, no matter the source.
4. Get offline
Dr. Edward Hallowell told WebMD that one of the major keys to reducing stress is leading a “connected life.” But the connectivity has nothing to do with the internet or devices — in fact, it’s just the opposite. He says you should be “not electronically connected, but interpersonally connected, where you have friends you rely on and talk with. Get physical exercise, a major stress reducer. And get enough sleep. Those three steps, which anybody can do, will make a big difference.” The biggest problem with these three items is that people claim they don’t have enough time for them. But Hallowell believes dependency on technology and poor time management is the culprit.
“Most people waste at least three hours a week in what I call ‘screen sucking’ — mindless emailing, IMing, and surfing the net. If you just cut that out, there’s a workout for you and a lunch with a friend,” he said. Social media like Facebook is proven to have negative effects for everyone — not just increased stress. It’s becoming clear that logging off is one of the best options you can make.
5. Actively avoid stressors
Hear us loud and clear: This doesn’t mean walking away from stressful situations that you’re already in. If you need a breather with your boss or significant other, take it. But avoidance once you’re already involved won’t fix your issues.
What will help, though, is recognizing stressors and doing what you can to avoid them before they show up. For example, Everyday Health reports men’s stress levels rise 60% in traffic jams — seven times that of women. Finding ways to avoid rush hour, if possible, might be the start of lower stress levels in your life.
Plus, actively avoiding known problems might help your worries about things you can’t control in general. “Worry is having your pain in advance,” says psychotherapist Terrence Real. “You can learn to keep yourself in the present,” he says. “Don’t project into the future.”
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