The concept of what it means to be a real man in the modern world is changing. Gone are the days of being expected to grill large hunks of meat, hide your feelings, and chug back cans of beer. Join Registered Holistic Nutritionist Andrew Raines as he explores what it takes to be a real man, attempts to break stereotypes and challenges the antiquated definition of masculinity. This is not just a column for men, but for everyone that has a man in their life.
It took every shred of self-control I possess to fight the urge to submit a blank page containing just 3 simple words of advice: “SUCK IT UP.” Fortunately, I am surrounded by people much smarter than me and quick enough to remind me that not all are fortunate enough to appreciate my often misunderstood sense of humor. But, to be fair, this is how we men are taught to deal with stress since we were overly-emotional, self-centered little boys. Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t show weakness. Real men bottle up our emotions and feelings and tuck them away in some small space of our uncomplicated male brains to be forgotten and never dealt with. Of course, every once in a while this part of our brain grows so full that we are no longer able to lock away these feelings, resulting in an eruption of profanity-laced anger and emotion. Dare I suggest this strategy is flawed?
But first, what IS stress?
If men are to embrace a new policy of stress management, we must first gain an understanding of what stress is, the many forms it takes, and, most importantly, how it affects us. Stress is our response to a stressor. This can be real or perceived and what is stressful to one individual might not be stressful to another. It is the perception of stress that what will often trigger how our body will respond to the stressor. The stress response is generally a reaction by the body’s sympathetic nervous system, resulting in the fight-or-flight-response. Historically, our stressors have been primarily physical, such as running from predator to survive.Harvard Medical School (2016). Understanding the Stress Response. Accessed on 5/13/16 from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response Our body will automatically make the most use of the limited energy it has by neglecting functions like digestion in order to effectively prime the body to fight or flight by sending blood to the muscles.Stress Management Society. (2015). What is Stress. Accessed on 5/13/16 from: http://www.stress.org.uk/what-is-stress/
Stresses of the modern man
While our ancestral sources of stress have generally involved immediate dangers and threats to our survival, thankfully this is no longer the case for the majority of the human race. Gone are the days of living in daily fear of the dreaded saber-toothed tiger or vicious woolly mammoth. Far more common are stressors like being scorned by our spouse or boss, not meeting a deadline at work, or far too common, drinking far too much coffee. While we may be able to differentiate between the threats of being trampled by a herd of angry elephants or being yelled at by an upset spouse (sometimes more frightening), our bodies often react in a similar way. Located on the top of our kidneys are adrenal glands, extremely important to our body’s response to stress. When we perceive that we are in a stressful situation our adrenal glands kick into action and secretes cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.” This gives us an immediate source of energy, allowing us to become more alert, have quicker reactions, and utilize our muscles more efficiently. This was a great evolutionary benefit when we were actually running from danger or fighting for survival, but can be quite problematic if we are chronically stressed from modern day stressors that do not require this flight-or-fight response.Harvard Medical School (2016). Understanding the Stress Response. Accessed on 5/13/16 from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Stress is not one-size-fits-all. The role of complementary stress:
As we are unable to stay in a fight-or-flight response for long periods of time, stress is typically viewed as a negative condition.http://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/studentlife/health/promotion/goto/resources/stress.html But, small amounts of stress from time to time can have a positive impact on our health and well-being. Complementary stress, such as exercise, and production stress–created when you are striving to achieve a goal–are positive forms or stress that can be embraced and harnessed to achieve one’s goals. For instance, the butterflies you often feel before a big show can be used as an aid to achieve high levels of performance, but if not used correctly, they can inhibit your performance. This is why your perception of stress is of the utmost importance.
Stress management for real men
While we are able to deal with the occasional stressful situation and even utilize complementary stress as a performance enhancer, chronic stress can be very problematic for our long term health. As stereotypes are changing and men can engage in a good public cry now and then while still retaining their masculinity (I’ve even heard of some women that claim to find this attractive), there are more effective strategies for dealing with negative stress:
- Deep breathing exercises:
Breathing is something you may argue that you have figured out and I’ll concede that you wouldn’t be reading this article if you hadn’t. That being said, if you find that while you are breathing you often inhale with your chest and breathe with your mouth, a few simple changes can do wonders for to help manage stress with proper breathing. When you feel overwhelmed with a stressful situation, seek out a quiet place where you will not be disturbed or distracted and take deep purposeful belly breaths with your eyes closed.
Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose (nasal breathing) while focusing on both inhaling and exhaling for 4-5 seconds each. You can experiment with different breathing rhythms and add a 4-5 second count between your inhales and exhales. To ensure you are breathing into your belly and not with your chest, it can be helpful to do this while lying down, ensuring your belly rises with every inhale, and drops with every exhale. Focusing on your breathing while ignoring distracting thoughts and your surroundings is the beginning steps of mindfulness meditation, another way to help manage stress.
Sleep is likely something that you have a great deal of experience with, but once again, you wouldn’t be reading this article if you were a perfect sleeper. While sleep is important for many reasons, not prioritizing sleep will lead to a far more stressed body. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per nighthttps://sleepfoundation.org/media-center/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times and don’t be afraid to schedule naps if you are falling short on a regular basis. Engage in good sleep hygiene and remember the bedroom is for sleeping and fun only!
- Support your body with nutrition:
Stress can wreak havoc on your body. It’s time to show your body some nutritional love. Start by ensuring you are eating enough nutrient dense foods, focusing on dark leafy greens and vegetables, sea vegetables, fruits, plant-based proteins, and whole grains. Also focus on eating mindfully to truly enjoy your meals.
Remember there is no perfect way to deal with stress. Gone are the days of feeling like less of a man because we feel stressed out or emotional. Real men experience many different emotions, some healthy, and others less so. Real men feel stress and have feelings, and yes, sometimes that means you may see a real man cry. Do not think less of him, he is a real man, and he is dealing with his stress like a real man.
What are your favorite ways to deal with stress?