How men can improve symptoms of stress: 6 steps to better mental health

Feel like you’ve got your stress levels under control? You might not feel like life is getting on top of you, but figures show that men struggle to assess their stress levels effectively.

Stress has numerous adverse effects on your long-term physical and psychological well-being, so if you’re serious about your results, stress management should be integral to your recovery routine.

Read on to learn how stress could be holding you back and how you can manage it effectively.

 

Do men and women handle stress differently?

Statistically, men say they experience less stress than women[1]. Yet male mental health data shows that male psychological health is at an all-time low[2],[3]:

  • Men account for three out of every four suicide, and suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 35.[4]
  • 12.5% of UK men live with a common mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.
  • 38% of men drink over the recommended 14 units of alcohol in a week and are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent.[5],[6]
  • Men are less likely to access psychological therapies. Only 36% of referrals to psychological therapies are men.[7]
  • Men are twice as likely as women to use illegal drugs when feeling stressed[8]. Men are three times more likely to report frequent drug use, and more than two-thirds of drug-related deaths are men[9].

These data show that what men report conflicts with their behaviour, so what’s the cause of this disparity?

Why do men underestimate stress?

Figures show that men are less likely than women to believe that stress impacts overall health and understand the role of lifestyle in maintaining good mental health, including poor eating habits, negative attitudes and lack of sleep[10]. Men are also worryingly at greater risk of developing depression following stressful events[11].

Women are prone to more ‘externalising’ symptoms such as anxiety or depression, but men are more likely to experience externalising symptoms, such as violence and substance abuse[12]. Men are also less likely to reach out to those around them for support. Research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that only 24% of men who have experienced high stress levels have discussed this with a friend or family member[13].

 

How does stress affect men?

A healthy stress pattern follows a simple pathway: stress transpires, the body responds through the endocrine system, stress is dealt with (flight-or-fight), the stress response ends and we are better adapted to that stressor when we next encounter it. This is known as an acute stress response. However, when stress does not dissipate, it can have numerous negative impacts on health, including:

1. Stress can cause decreased testosterone levels in men

Men with low testosterone levels (also known as hypogonadism) are statistically more likely to lead highly stressful lives, and even the anticipation of stress appears to decrease testosterone production[14]. Stress may also make men more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking, binge eating, and drug abuse, indirectly lowering testosterone. Decreased testosterone can increase the risk of depression, osteoporosis, loss of muscle mass and strength, and impaired sexual function[15]. Several studies have also linked hypogonadism with increased all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease and stroke[16],[17],[18],[19].

2. Stress can cause impaired fertility in men

Stress has a major impact on male fertility by decreasing semen volume and sperm motility and morphology[20]. Work-related stress and feelings of anxiety and irritability may also indicate low testosterone levels, a common cause of infertility[21].

3. Stress can cause increased risk of erectile dysfunction in men

Men with depression are almost 40% more likely to experience erectile dysfunction (ED) and loss of libido[22]. Prolonged stress can result in the release of catecholamines that, over time, can increase high blood pressure, which itself is a risk factor for ED[23]. Increased sympathetic nervous system activity is a hallmark of hypertension and plays a pivotal role in erectile competence. This alteration may lead to sexual disorders such as premature ejaculation and ED. It is also the most likely cause of ED in stressed individuals and may worsen it[24].

4. Stress can affect men’s metabolisms

Stress has several adverse effects on gut health via its influence on the role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), our central stress response system. When stress becomes chronic, insulin sensitivity decreases, increasing the risk of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes[26].

Stress also negatively affects thyroid function and metabolism which can be a recipe for increased weight gain, inflammation and low mood.

5. Stress increases the risk of certain cancers in men

Research indicates that the nervous system plays a crucial role in developing prostate cancer. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) governs the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response. In contrast, the peripheral nervous system (PNS), promoting ‘rest-and-digest’ processes, acts in opposition to keep bodily functions in balance[28]. A 2013 study found that the SNS promotes tumour growth by producing norepinephrine, which binds to receptors on the surface of cells in the tumour. The study’s findings also indicated that the PNS makes tumour cells invade other tissues and travel to different parts of the body[29].

Read how Nick lost 52kg and transformed his health from his old lifestyle of high-stress and punishing hours as a lawyer.

 

How can men reduce the health risks from stress?

We all know that long-term stress is bad, but what can you do if your to-do list is long but you’re short on time? Here are our top five quick wins for busting stress.

1. Invest in your mental health in the same way you do your physical health

If you want to learn how to improve your physical health, you hire a trainer to show you how. Your psychological well-being should be no different. Managing mental health is a skill, and the best way to learn this skill is through professional guidance and a robust feedback loop. If you don’t have a reliable support network, opting for talking therapies is a solid investment in your long-term health.

2. Maximise your sleep quality

Psychological resilience, the ability to withstand setbacks, adapt positively to challenges and bounce back from adversities, appears to have a bidirectional relationship with sleep quality and quantity. The research shows that sleep has a significant role in regulating mood and numerous metabolic processes[30].

A 2021 survey of nearly 500 adults measured sleep quality, resilience, and grit, a universal predictor of life success regardless of individual character or occupation, i.e. an individual’s perseverance and passion for pursuing long-term goals[31],[32]. Sleep metrics were used to predict resilience, hardiness and. The results showed that self-reported sleep quality and quantity were independently associated with greater self-reported resilience, hardness and grit[33].

  • While aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep per night should be universal, if that’s not realistic for you, focus on maximising your sleep quality:
  • Where possible, create a consistent sleep routine, waking and going to sleep at roughly the same time each day.
  • Minimise exposure to blue light in the hours before bed.
  • Set a bedtime alarm and avoid doing work or chores within the hour before sleeping. If that’s not possible, aim for at least 20-30 minutes before bed.
  • If you don’t sleep in a completely dark room, invest in blackout blinds or an eye mask.
  • Supplements can help support lifestyle change and provide the micronutrients needed to maximise sleep quality.

3. Walk more

Longitudinal research has found that sleep quality, stress, and life satisfaction improve alongside the implementation of aerobic walking. Participants in a recent randomised control trial completed 60 minutes of walking daily, completing at least 60 steps per minute, with no further physical exercise. The control group were asked to maintain a sedentary lifestyle.

The results showed that daily walking improved sleep quality and provided psychological benefits[34]. While there is no ‘magic number’, setting a baseline of 10,000 steps per day is a good baseline to improve body composition and boost your sleep. It’s also an easy way to increase your daylight exposure. While all daylight exposure appears to improve self-perceived measures of mood and sleep beneficial, daylight before midday brings the biggest benefits[35].

4. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet

Highly inflammatory diets, usually containing high amounts of processed foods, put your body on the back foot for dealing with the additional stresses of day-to-day life. Evidence indicates that a high intake of trans fats may be related to stress and anxiety levels[36].

In addition, a poor diet can disrupt gastrointestinal bacteria and increase intestinal permeability, further affecting resilience and the production of vital neurotransmitters for mental health[37]. Inversely, diets rich in high-quality proteins, fibrous vegetables, and healthy fats reduce systemic inflammation and improve the body’s immune response[38]. A high intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats help protect against stress due to their ability to fight oxidative stress[39].

5. Pursue activities that enhance your resilience to stress

Evidence shows that activities such as resistance training and even cold therapy can lift your mood and enhance your ability to deal with stress. Research into mood disorders found that whole-body cryotherapy improved mood scores by up to 50% in outpatients with depressive and anxiety disorders[40]. You might not have a cryo-chamber at home but taking a cold shower for up to five minutes, two-to-three times per week, has been shown to relieve depressive symptoms[41]. Likewise, other data show that regular physical exercise, specifically resistance training, reduces physiological reactivity to psychosocial stress[42].

6. Invest time into stress management

If you have a hectic lifestyle, meditation or stress management may fall low on the priority list. But investing in taking effective downtime not only prevents stress from building to uncontrollable levels, it increases your overall productivity. A 2012 study explored the effects of long-term meditation on cognitive performance in adults aged 55 and over.

The results showed that concentrative meditation significantly improved cognitive performance[43]. More recent research into resilience among executives also found that participants who engaged in meditative practices had significantly higher resilience scores than those who did not[44].

If time’s an issue, destress in under five minutes using the box-breathing method:

1. Breathe in, counting to four slowly. Aim to expand your lungs as much as possible.

2. Hold your breath for four seconds.

3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds, aiming to expel all the air.

4. Repeat steps one to three for a minimum of two minutes.

Learn how Nicho’s new training and diet program helped him lose 16kg and manage life stress effectively.

 

The take-home

Men generally report lower stress levels than women, but it’s clear from male mental health statistics that stress remains important. And as well as its psychological effects, unmanaged stress increases has serious consequences for physical health. You’re unlikely to start living a completely stress-free life any time soon, but simple hacks can go a long way to keeping things feeling more manageable.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support if you’re struggling with stress. Below is a list of external service providers you can contact.

  • The Samaritans – To talk about anything upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email [email protected] or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Welsh Language Line on 0300 123 3011 (7 pm–11 pm every day).
  • SANEline – If you are experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, you can call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30 pm–10.30 pm every day).
  • The Mix – If you’re under 25, you can call The Mix on 0808 808 4994 (Sunday-Friday 2 pm–11 pm), request support by email using this form on The Mix website or use their crisis text messenger service.
  • Papyrus HOPELINEUK – If you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10 am-10 pm, weekends 2 pm-10 pm and bank holidays 2 pm–10 pm), email [email protected] or text 07786 209 697.

 

Additional resources

  • Men’s Health Forum
  • CALM – Campaign Against Living Miserably
  • Movember -Supporting Men’s Health
  • Father’s Reaching Out, Father’s Mental Health
  • Men’s Sheds UK – Support for Lonely Older Men
  • Mind

 

Read here, to find out the 6 steps to improve male mental health.

 

References

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