Understanding a Stressed Man

Amy Guertin
Understanding a stressed man

The most important thing in understanding stress in a man is realizing men respond to stress completely differently than women. A man is not going to respond to stress in the same way you do, and he is not going to respond to the same "helpful" behaviors from you that you would from him.

Hormones and Stress

There are three hormones involved in stress reactions:

  • Cortisol
  • Epinephrine
  • Oxytocin

Cortisol and epinephrine are essentially produced in equal amounts in men and women during stressful events. However, it is oxytocin, a bonding hormone (also called "the love hormone"), that is produced and released in much lower amounts in men than women when stressed.

How Hormones Affect Stressed Men Versus Women

In men, lower oxytocin levels lead men to a more typical "fight or flight" response. When stressed, men tend to:

  • Become more argumentative
  • Respond more critically
  • Become less comforting and supportive to others
  • Withdraw into themselves, becoming quiet
  • Ignore their stress
  • Engage in activities by themselves

In women, higher oxytocin levels lead to a "tend and befriend" response to stress. When stressed, women tend to:

  • Want to be around loved ones and friends
  • Become more nurturing
  • Share stressful experiences through talking
  • Process emotions verbally, frequently by talking about them over and over

To Help a Stressed Man

It isn't possible to hormonally change a man's reaction to stress, but it is possible to change a man's hormones in ways that can affect his mood. To help a stressed man, try the following.

Increase Oxytocin

Increasing oxytocin can help with the "tend and befriend" response. One of the easiest ways to increase oxytocin is through touch. When you touch a stressed man, it:

  • Activates the vagus nerve in the brain, which triggers the release of oxytocin
  • Increases feelings of reward and compassion
  • Fosters cooperation and sharing in relationships by signaling safety and trust
  • Can inhibit the natural stress response people have toward potential threats

Hold hands, rub his arm as you walk past, or give him a massage. Through touch, you are not only letting him know you care, you are also helping his brain to release oxytocin, which can help reduce his stress.

Increase Testosterone

Increasing testosterone decreases cortisol, the stress hormone. Below are some ways you can help increase his testosterone levels.

  • Focus on his successes and achievements.
  • Do a physical activity together, like walking or biking.
  • Suggest he go work out.
  • Encourage him to plan a day trip with his buddies doing something he enjoys.
  • Have sex.

Helping him to increase his testosterone level can help to decrease his stress level.

Take Care of Yourself

In couples, stress tends to hit both parties at the same time. You can't help him with his stress level if your stress is also high. Prior to stressful events, both of you should make a list of activities that you can do separately to help you reduce stress. When stressed, pick things to do from your list until your stress decreases. Your lists can include anything:

  • Taking a hot bath
  • Eating a particularly loved food
  • Working on the car
  • Taking a drive
  • Reading
  • Watching sports
  • Listening to music

Once your own stress level is decreased, you can then help him to reduce his. You aren't any good to anyone else if you aren't any good to yourself.

Turn Down the Emotions

As stated above, men tend to be less supportive and more critical of their partners when stressed. However, research has shown when women are more matter-of-fact (and less emotional) regarding their own stress, men tend to respond more favorably. Instead of giving a play-by-play of your entire horrible day, complete with your emotional responses, try giving just the basics.

For example, say, "I've had a really bad day and I'm really stressed tonight."

Likewise, respond to his stress in a less emotional, more neutral manner, such as saying, "I'm sorry you're feeling stressed."

You'll find you will get a better reaction when you're more neutral than when you talk about how you just feel crushed about the fight you got into with Marcy at lunch today. Men frequently have a difficult time processing their own emotional responses. When you add your emotions to theirs, they can get overwhelmed and become terse as a way of protecting themselves from further emotional impact.

Ask What You Can Do

Try asking what you can do to help in a more neutral tone.

Say, "You seemed really stressed today. What can I do to help?"

Make sure NOT to:

  • Put more of an emotional burden on him
  • Ask if you can help, since this will most likely result in an answer of "no"
  • Push him if he says, "Nothing" or asks for some time
  • Forget to tell him that you are there if he changes his mind

Asking what you can do to help will make him stop and put some thought into what you can actually do.

Be Patient

What may come easily to you when helping a female friend deal with a stressful situation may not be so easy when dealing with a man. Men and women react to, and deal with stress very differently from each other. Be prepared for him not to turn to you as you would him. Realize that for him, the tendency to want to be alone and ignore his stress is natural. For women, this is almost unthinkable. Encourage him to talk and let him know you are there. Expect him to work with you; you are, after all, in a relationship. Just understand it may take a little more time than it would for you.

Understanding a Stressed Man