This is a question that I am frequently asked. And if it is a female client asking the question it is usually followed by the question: And why is it that my husband and other men deal with stress so well?
Let’s look at the second question, relating to the common perception that men seem to deal with emotional stress better than women. We need to look closely at what is meant by “men deal well with stress.”
It seems that one of the key reasons many people believe that men deal well with stress is because men often do not show obvious signs that they are experiencing stress.
The lack of outward signs of stress does not mean, however, that a man or woman or, even, a young person is not experiencing stress. It often simply means that the individual has learned how to ignore or avoid the signs of stress and/or to hide the signs of stress from others.
And I was one of those children and then, eventually, one of those adults who appeared to deal well with stress when, in fact, I was simply doing everything I could not to think about or feel the unpleasant emotion of anxiety (or sadness, or hurt, or anger, etc).
Avoiding and/or hiding the signs of anxiety and stress is not the same as dealing with stress effectively! These are, in fact, self-defeating habits. And the reason that I say this is because if you are experiencing stress, especially chronic stress, then you have stress hormones, specifically cortisol, regularly circulating in your bloodstream.
And the human body and brain are not designed to have cortisol released into the bloodstream apart from approximately 30 minutes before waking up in the morning and during life-threatening situations.
Practising mindfulness on a daily basis over the past decade or so has enabled me, however, to slowly but surely release the above self-defeating habits and build new, far healthier ways of working with stress and unwanted emotions.
One of the first new habits that I developed and that you can begin experimenting with is to regularly pause and take the time to check-in, or place your attention on, what is happening to you in your mind and body during those times when you are experiencing stress and/or elevated levels of anxiety.
In other words, try to give attention to how your mind and body react when stress is experienced. In particular, what thoughts arise in your mind and what parts of your body tighten up or begin to feel uncomfortable?
For example, do your thoughts start to include worst-case scenarios or, alternatively, do you immediately turn your thoughts away from the stressor and towards something that can distract you?
And, do you notice that your upper body tenses or that you regularly hold your breath or that your heart rate increases or that your shoulders tighten and move upwards towards your ears, etc?
Importantly, pausing and taking the time to look at what happens to you when you experience stress means that you will more likely be able to start to release the old habit of simply reacting to stressors in an automatic, largely unconscious, and, perhaps, self-defeating manner.
Sadly, when we are rushing from one task to the next most of us are likely to miss the first physical signs of low-grade stress that often accompany a challenging time like this.
Possibly the most important, yet easily overlooked, a sign of stress includes muscular tightness or tension, especially in one's upper body. If you don't catch this process early on then before long, you will be feeling exhausted or depleted because of the muscular tension that you have been holding over the previous hours.
Crucially, muscular tension also prevents one from breathing deeply, causing one to breathe shallow breaths instead, which further raises our stress levels and feelings of depletion.
The antidote to this is to regularly, every hour or so, "check-in" on your body, and over a period of 5 - 10 seconds "scan" yourself from head to toe. If there are any signs of muscular tightness or tension then consciously try to relax and loosen up these areas. And, importantly, give your breathing attention as well, making very sure to breathe deeply and slowly.
Over the coming weeks try to cultivate the new habit of "checking in" and you are likely to feel the benefits soon.
The more you become aware of your bodily sensations, when and how they change, the more you will develop your ability to see your stress with clarity, which will lead you to respond to it with more self-care, less self-concern and manage it more effectively during the day.