How stress affects men

This is a very critical campaign because globally, we are losing more men than women due to poor health amongst other causes

The month of June is commemorated as men’s health month. The purpose of men's health month is to raise and increase awareness on preventable health problems that affect men and boys.

This is a very critical campaign because globally, we are losing more men than women due to poor health amongst other causes. According to research findings by the National Library of Medicine (article PMC1523476), more men than women under the age of 44 die prematurely and in many cases, the causes of the early deaths are avoidable.

While a number of factors affect men’s health, one of the top causes of physical and mental ailments for men is unmanaged stress. As we are all aware, stress is the body’s natural way of reacting to potential and real danger, however when stress goes unchecked and unattended to for a long time, it begins to be a menace to the human body and can lead to high mortality among men. Here are just a few of the many ways in which stress can affect men’s health and life.

Stress can obstruct the body’s immune system.

According to the University of Maryland School Of Medicine, stress can reduce the number of natural killer cells or lymphocytes in the body, which are needed to fight viruses.

This affects the body’s anti-inflammatory response hence causing continual infections and illnesses. Secondly, stress can affect the heart because stress hormones increase the heart rate, constrict blood vessels and force the heart to work harder hence causing high blood pressure.

According to the American Institute of Stress, the incidence rate of heart attacks and sudden death increases after major stressful life events. Last but not least, the National Library of medicine’s article PMC5976254 on stress states that chronic stress plays a significant role in the onset of severe and impairing psychiatric conditions, including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

This is how dangerous stress can be and the month of June allows us to focus on the male species and share vital information on how best men can protect for their health. One of the dangerous aspects about stress is that it often presents itself in ways that are not common and familiar and so a man going through chronic stress may not be aware that this is what is happening to them.

It goes without saying that incorrect diagnosis will always result in wrong management of the condition hence giving it room to flourish and cause more harm. Stress can affect men in various ways including but not limited to physical, emotional, mental and social well-being.

Physical: when the body releases the stress hormone in excess due to prolonged exposure to stressful conditions, the excess cortisol begins to interfere with normal body functions, hence causing headaches, back pain, high blood pressure, digestive issues, sleep problems and a weakened immune system as alluded to earlier. At times, these symptoms may persist even after taking medication because the real cause remains unchallenged.

A man’s reproductive system can also be affected by stress. A 1984 Journal of Reproductive Systems study found that stress can affect a man’s body weight, testosterone levels and sexual desire.

Mental: excess cortisol in the body can also overwhelm the brain hence triggering the onset of anxiety, depression, irritability, forgetfulness, procrastination and decreased cognitive function. That’s when a man starts failing to perform at work and in business and also fails to meet their obligations at home. This causes their body to produce more stress hormones which continue to compromise the functionality of their body and brain.

Behavioural: in trying to cope with the pressures and ease the discomfort caused by excess cortisol, some men may resort to increased alcohol consumption, tobacco and substance use and other unhealthy coping habits. Unfortunately, these habits do not make things better because the temporary relief offered by substances may lead to addiction, exacerbating mental health problems in the process.

Social: very often the behavioural changes above begin to affect the people closest to this man and so conflicts with family and friends ensue, followed by social withdrawal, isolation and loneliness. Many marriages and families have broken down simply because stress was not managed well and it resulted in a long list of problems that became difficult to resolve because cortisol also affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, insight, judgement and decision making.

Occupational: when a man is having serious issues at home and with friends and family, it begins to affect him at work because he cannot focus, concentrate or remember critical information and so there is decreased productivity, absenteeism and burnout. In some cases serious work conflicts arise and office relationships are marred. At times it may result in disciplinary action at work, demotions, transfers or even job losses.

So, when stress is not attended to and managed well, it may eventually drive a man to commit suicide because everything around him is crumbling and he is crushing under intense pressure and therefore fails to cope.

According to WHO statistics, men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women mainly because of lack of effective coping mechanisms. A man with effective coping mechanisms for stress in the 21 st century is like a man who goes into the battle front line wearing a bullet proof amour. Here are some of the ways in which men can build strong mental and physical resilience against stress.

Get your body moving

When you get stressed out, your brain releases the stress hormone, cortisol to prepare your body for action, either to fight or to flee from whatever is endangering your life. This works in situations where you are about to be hit by someone or by a car, the cortisol is what enables your body to block your attacker’s fist or to swiftly jump out of the car’s way. Sadly, we are mostly stressed out by nonphysical or perceived danger and so the body never gets to use the cortisol hence it accumulates and becomes toxic to the body. This is why exercise is a highly recommended remedy for stress because it allows your body to burn out the excess cortisol.

Be your brother’s keeper

Men are generally good at coming together to socialise with friends especially over a beer. This can be used as a basis for forming groups of like-minded friends that you can safely open up to about your challenges and they provide moral, intellectual, spiritual or material support. Gone are the days to just meet and talk about politics and soccer while showing off cars, new projects, promotions, properties and women but to become each other’s keeper.

Practice self care

Self-care is not just for women! It is a life preservation technique that allows a man to pay attention to the danger warning signs released by his body. Ignoring these signals and alerts is similar to driving a vehicle whose dashboard is telling you that oil levels are critically low and you ignore it, the engine will knock! Self-care means being able to decode what your body is saying and responding accordingly. This could be taking a break to clear your head when work pressure heats up, being kind, patient and understanding with yourself when going through tough times, allowing self to have quality restorative sleep, fuelling your body with nutritious food and spending quality time with family.

Seek professional help

If you employ the above techniques and you still feel overwhelmed and you are struggling to cope then it’s time to seek professional help. Medical Doctors/Psychiatrists, Psychologists and Counsellors are trained to help your body and brain get back to normal working condition. Seeking help is generally viewed as a sign of failure and furthermore, most men do not even know how to express their feelings because of a myth that being emotional is a sign of weakness.

Sadly, it is the failure to seek help and to express emotions that result in more men dying by suicide every year.

Happy men’s health month to all the men out there and please do not let yourself become a container that carries toxic acid, it will erode you from inside. Explore the different ways of offloading excess stress from your system so that you can be effective and productive and alive, because the world needs you.

  • Mhaka is a wellness consultant, who focuses on mental health awareness, mindset development and mental strength training. She is the executive director of BeMindFit, an author and public speaker. These weekly New Horizon articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852.


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