|OK, so what do blokes mean by stress? Well, it means different things for different people. But what it's usually taken to mean is a threat, change, overload or relationship problem that leads to an unpleasant physical or psychological discomfort or illness.
Being more precise about it, a stressor (terrible word) is the cause and the distress or illness is the consequence. The other thing we've got to put into the equation is the vulnerability of the bloke to the stressor and the pattern of his response. This depends on things such as belief systems and well-entrenched models of dealing with issues.
Don't be mistaken. It's normal to be exposed to stressors. And some stress is helpful. One of two things can happen when stressors arise either they have a temporary effect on the body or they are stored. It's the latter, the accumulation of stress, that causes the problem.
It's important to learn how to identify major stressors because then we can get to the real source of the problem rather than just trying to deal with its symptoms. Stressors can include threats (eg, money problems, fear of retrenchment), a lack of balance in lifestyle (eg, too little or too many demands at once) and relationships (eg, the inability to say “no”, lack of approval).
The Consequences of Stress
The consequences of stress can be expressed in three ways: physical symptoms, feelings, and behaviours. Let's look at each of these.
The physical symptoms are triggered by the release of hormones like adrenalin or cortisone from the adrenal and other glands. The most common short term symptoms include tiredness, heart palpitation, knots in the abdomen, tremor and headache. But they can also be a little bit more subtle, things like tingling of the hands, heartburn, neck ache and leg ache.
Many men actually recognise these early warning light symptoms as being attributed to stress but most ignore their significance. This means that you run the risk of physical symptoms accumulating and you end up with chronic illness. The associated “absorption” of chronic stress can lead to faulty immune systems (leading to greater risk of infections and cancer) heart disease and the worsening of already chronic illnesses such as asthma and eczema. This is serious territory.
The second way that stress manifests is as an emotional response feelings. And this can be any one of the four central emotions: sadness, anger, fear and joy, or a combination of them. Traditionally, men have a tendency to not express or to deny emotions. When this reaches major proportions we're looking at burnout or breakdown and in some cases, psychiatric illness.
Behaviours are the third consequence of stress. They may be helpful, leading you to become more productive or they may be harmful leading to self-isolation, violence, accidents or substance abuse. If the usual method of dealing with difficult periods in life is to drink alcohol excessively, to use tranquillisers or smoke dope, then the tendency is to revert to this sort of behaviour.
Another thing to mention is the delayed expression of stress post-traumatic stress disorder. This is particularly prevalent in men and today we often see it in: Vietnam veterans; victims of childhood sexual abuse; survivors of fires and those who work in police, ambulance and other emergency services. Post-traumatic stress disorder is often linked to emergency situations, where blokes tend to manage well and perform whatever task is necessary. Usually it's only a few days or months later that the stressor really starts to have its damaging consequences.
There are three major risk factors that will make a bloke more vulnerable to stressors: faulty belief systems, failure to acknowledge emotions and lack of social supports.
By faulty belief systems I mean things such as demand for approval, unrealistic expectations, blame proneness, problem avoidance and low frustration tolerance. (See Live Rite Healthy Lifestyle Program, 1990)
It's pretty true to say that men generally have an inability to express or acknowledge emotions. And, when asked, most men say the have only a handful of close male friends. In fact, for many men there is no bloke with whom they can share their personal worries or issues. Reducing your vulnerability is a good way of lessening the consequences of stress.
Getting the best out of stressful situations
Knowing your own early warning signs of stress and listening to them is something blokes often forget. In this sense, preventing stress build up is just good management how many men who saw a wheel nut missing would wait until the other three fell off?
Setting up a regular lifestyle which nurtures your body, mind and soul is really important. A balanced healthy lifestyle plays a big role in reducing your vulnerability to stressors. The things we're looking for here are regular exercise, nutritious food eaten properly and time for rest and contemplation.
When it comes to feelings, there are a number of ways of dealing with discomfort.
If there is unresolved sadness, talking through the grief can be a big help.
If there is persistent anger or fear then being challenged to do something about it will assist you to deal with the emotion.
On the other hand, some people use “rackets” to deal with the consequences of stress. These rackets which mask the emotion often appear as boring behaviour such as sulking or rationalisation. And they usually arise from faulty belief systems. Unless confronted, these rackets will persist. But you can detect them by learning how to identify your self-talk and challenging the faulty thinking.
Let's face it. Getting in touch with your feelings is not always easy. One good way to do it is to first identify the physical feeling, focus on that and then try and associate that with a feeling. Unfortunately there is no quick solution to this it takes time, practice and permission.
Learning to accept that you can cope with bad feelings is also important. It doesn't mean denying feelings but nor does it mean exaggerating feelings.
If you ever feel overwhelmed or unable to deal with stress on your own, try finding help from a friend, colleague, health worker or wise man. Most blokes see this as an admission of weakness and usually don't get round to doing it until much too late.
Another thing that helps is setting up support networks such as joining a men's group or finding a mentor.
Other things to consider are planning your priorities, committing yourself to activities you're capable of doing, taking regular holidays and giving yourself positive self messages.
Finally, relaxation techniques on their own usually have minimal effect but when combined with confronting the source of the problem, living a healthy lifestyle and getting help from one's mates they can play an important part in overall stress management.
Clearly, stress management is a big health issue for men but we can take steps to stay healthy. I hope this information is useful to you. I look forward to any feedback. Good health!
Ian Hislop Stress, Distress and Ilness McGraw-Hill, Sydney 1991
Audrey Livingston Booth Stressmanship Savern House Publishers London 1985
Live Rite Healthy Lifestyle Program Health Promotion Unit, Sydney Hospital 1990
P Williams Men's Health and Well Being Program Glenorchy, Tasmania 1996
You can read more from Nick Cooling by visiting his Special Adviser's Men's Health area.