Men and women's average stress levels may be on par with each other, but the physical and psychological toll of long-term stress on men and women is quite different.
In addition to the various health impacts of stress experienced by both sexes, tension and anxiety can also take a different toll on the male mind and body, starting with the immediate stress response. While stress tends to activate the "tend and befriend" response in women, men have been found to react to stress more with the aggressive "fight or flight" response, according to one study.
"When the fight or flight response is activated [in both sexes], our bodies go into emergency mode and take care of immediate and acute needs, focusing on getting energy to the muscles, and we don't take care of the longer-term needs of the body," stated Dr. Emma Acosta, who specializes in physical-therapy and sports medicine. "We shut down things like our immune systems, reproductive systems ... It does suppress the release of testosterone and it suppresses other reproductive systems. The wear and tear on the body is severe from repeated stress."
For men, there are several reasons why stress stinks and should simply be avoided if possible.
1. Decreased Facial Attractiveness
The male hormone, testosterone, has been linked with a strong immune system and facial attractiveness in men. A University of Toronto study in which women ranked the attractiveness of 97 men found that those with higher testosterone and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol had higher immune system responses, and were deemed the most attractive. Men with higher cortisol levels, in turn, were deemed less attractive. Cortisol, the study suggests, may play a role in blocking testosterone's appeal to potential mates.
2. Early Heart Disease Risk As A Result Of Inherited Stress
An extensive body of research has established that stress is a risk factor in the development of heart disease, and inherited stress can also increase the risk of early heart disease. Recently, a Henry Ford Hospital study found that men with a family history of heart disease had a diagnosis of heart disease an average of 12 years earlier than those without a family history. They were also more likely to have a higher stress symptom score (an evaluation based on worry, impatience, anger and other symptoms) than men without a family history of heart disease -- suggesting that the propensity to get stressed may be, to some degree, inherited.
“Depression and stress are known risk factors for heart disease, and they both have strong heritability,” lead author Mark W. Ketterer, Ph.D., of Henry Ford Hospital’s Department of Behavioral Health, said in a May 2013 press release. “None of the other risk factors, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, were shown to have a significant familial link in this group. Therefore, it’s likely that men who have an early onset of heart disease might have a genetic predisposition to stress, which causes the heart disease.”
3. Leaves A Mark On Sperm & Offspring Development
Here's a big incentive for future fathers to start de-stressing: research in animals suggests that chronic stress could result in gene expression changes to dad's sperm -- and those changes could manifest in his offspring in the form of a muted reaction to stress.
"It didn't matter if dads were going through puberty or in adulthood when stressed before they mated. We've shown here for the first time that stress can produce long-term changes to sperm that reprogram the offspring HPA stress axis regulation," lead researcher Tracy L. Bale, Ph.D., said in a university press release. "These findings suggest one way in which paternal-stress exposure may be linked to such neuropsychiatric diseases."
4. Accelerates Prostate Cancer Development.
A recent study on mice found chronic stress to accelerate the development of prostate cancer, suggesting that prostate cancer patients could benefit from stress reduction as part of their treatment.
University of California studies have demonstrated that stress management can yield positive results in men with prostate cancer.
5. Erectile Dysfunction.
According to WebMD, 10 to 20 percent of all cases of erectile dysfunction (ED) are linked to psychological factors like stress, anxiety and depression. Sasha M. Samorski, Ph.D., professor of neurology at Stanford, explained that turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the "relax and renew" system) is essential for arousal -- but when we're stressed, we're operating from the sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight").
"You have trouble having an erection in the first place because you can't establish that parasympathetic tone," said Samorski in a 2012 talk for the Science of a Meaningful Life series. "[Or] you manage to have an erection ... and you accelerate the transition from parasympathetic to sympathetic, and the whole thing goes too quickly."
6. Lower Sperm Count.
Stress and anxiety could play a large role in male fertility, according to new research. Recent studies conducted in Italy found that men who were stressed ejaculated less and had a lower sperm count and concentration than those who were not under stress. Stress was also positively correlated with deformed and less mobile sperm.
7. Social Withdrawal.
The stereotype of the "strong and silent type" may actually be a picture of the male stress response. A 2010 University of Southern California study found that men who are stressed out exhibit less activity in the brain regions associated with understanding others' feelings. When placed under acute stress, the men had less of a brain response to facial expressions, especially fear and anger, whereas women had greater activity in these brain regions.
“These are the first findings to indicate that sex differences in the effects of stress on social behavior extend to one of the most basic social transactions -- processing someone else’s facial expression,” Mara Mather, director of the Emotion and Cognition Lab at USC, said in a press release. “Under stress, men tend to withdraw socially while women seek emotional support."
Both men and women can benefit from scientifically-proven stress busters like running, yoga, meditation or deep breathing. And to combat work-related stress, exercise can be one of the best forms to take control of every day life's tedious components.