How Men And Women Address Stress
As we age, our ability to cope well with stress depends largely on whether we fall into ‘resilient’ of ‘brittle’ category.
“There are two different groups of people in the 50-plus decade: those who become clearly more resilient, have learned lessons, looked after themselves and can cope better than when they were younger,” explains Richard Earle, director of the Canadian Stress Institute, a charitable foundation in Toronto that provides public education and professional training.
Then there is a group who are brittle, people whose immune system strength is rapidly decreasing, their blood pressure rising, their vision and hearing deteriorating.
If you are in the resilient group, not only do you weather the stressors that come with mid-life – the empty nest, bereavement, retirement and career changes – but you actually become stronger in the process.
Earle attributes a large part of the resilient group’s success in dealing with stress to self-awareness. “They know their strengths and their vulnerabilities and have learned how to cope,” he says.
How Do Men And Women Differ?
When it comes to comparing the sexes and stress, Mars and Venus couldn’t be more different. Men’s self-esteem is more attached to achievement and accomplishments. Women’s self-esteem is attached to relationships. Men are more likely to feel stress if they have setbacks at work or they don’t feel they are a good provider. Women, on the other hand, experience stress around their relationships with their parents, children, spouse or friends.
While their stressors may differ, so does the way they react to the stress. “Men deal with stress in the classic fight-or-flight way. They tackle the problem head on and challenge someone, or go to the other way and run away from it emotionally. Women are more apt to adopt the tend-and-befriend approach to stress. They will seek out other people and both give and ask for support. That accounts in part for, in my view, women tend to live longer than men,” explains Earle.
So, while Josephine, a self-described talker, deals with her stress by discussing it with people close to her, puttering in her garden and talking brisk walks, 51 years old Robert, a banker in New Jersey, handles his increasing stress very differently. “I only talk to my wife about how stressed out I am. I would never go to the outsiders,” he says. “I’m very close to my extended family, but I wouldn’t talk to them about it because I feel they would just say ‘Come on, we all work hard, suck it up and get over it.’ ”
While Robert recognizes the source of his stress as his work, it’s ironically due to the fact that he is successful. “I feel incredibly successful, but also feel like the rug could be pulled out from underneath me at any time,” he explains. It’s this never ending worry that not only pushes him to work harder but is also making him irritable to the point of being irrational over things that at one time wouldn’t have bothered him. It’s also taking a toll on his health. “I used to enjoy working out, but now I find that all I want to do is sleep or have a drink at the end of the day. The more I sleep or the more I drink, the less I feel like working out,” he says. As a result he has gained weight and is on medication for high cholesterol, which he blames in part for his lack of exercise and increased drinking. “There are days when I’m sure I’m having a heart attack'” says Robert. “I have an unrelenting tightness across my chest when I’m at my most stressed.”
While Josephine’s approach follows the more recommended and more effective strategy for coping, it’s not to say that women don’t suffer from as much stress. In fact, the frequency of depression and anxiety-related disorders is twice as prevalent in women. But because of the differences, men suffer in silence, struggle harder to cope and get themselves deeper into the stress they are experiencing. Studies have also found that men suffer much greater health impacts after stressful events, such as divorce or death, than do women. On the other hand, women will acknowledge the stress because they tend to be more self-aware (resilient) and they deal with their stress in more constructive ways.
When it comes to who does it better, the experts agree hands down, women take the prize. Women deal with it better because they get it out. Venting is very healthy when dealing with stress.
The Surprising Nutrition Connection
Because stress depletes our bodies of nutrients and minerals – specifically vitamin B (which helps you to better cope with stress) and vitamin C (an immune system builder) – as we age, it becomes even more important to be aware of what the body needs nutritionally to stay healthy. Signs of a lack of nutrients are: hair luster loss, decrease in skin elasticity, cracked nails and white flecks in the nail.
“Stress involved in two ways'” says Earle. “It downgrades the efficiency of all systems in the body, including the ability to absorb and then uptake the nutrients needed, and it gradually impairs our digestion.” A healthy diet is all the more important for those suffering from stress, which can be hard to do especially when one of the most common coping strategies we adopt involves overeating and indulging in junk foods full of empty calories.
“Our research has shown simply eating a good balanced diet across the four food groups, consuming at least three meals a day of nutrient-dense foods and smart snacking works,” offers Earle.