We know the stereotypical ways men reduce stress: play golf, fish, hunt, drink beer, watch sports on TV, and above all, avoid talking about feelings. We also know we “should” do healthier things to manage stress: exercise, eat well, meditate, spend time with family and friends—but we don’t really want the hassle.
Our problem as men is that we get stuck. We want to keep doing the things that we believe help us de-stress because those activities feel good (minus the losing seasons and hangovers). And it feels stressful to even think about the effort and sacrifice involved in doing the healthy “stress reduction” stuff. It’s like having to do your New Year’s resolutions every day of the year—way too much work. Just thinking about reducing stress feels stressful!
Here are a few suggestions for managing stress that can help get you back on top of your game. This isn’t the normal advice you’ve been reading for years, because it comes from new research that tells us what’s going on in your brain when you’re stressed. The key idea is that you have an alarm in your brain, and you have to re-set that alarm when you feel stressed: or else it will keep you stressed even when there’s nothing stressful going on. So how do you re-set that alarm? Here are five easy ways.
How Men Can Manage Stress
1. Measure Your Stress Levels Several Times Each Day
Do this now; take 5 seconds, rate your stress level on a scale of 1 (no stress) to 10 (worst stress ever), and go back to what you were doing.
How do you feel? Just paying attention to your stress level can lower it. The part of your brain that creates stress reactions, the amygdala, which we call “the alarm,” just wants to keep you alert so you will be calm and confident when faced with triggers like angry bosses, wives, and girlfriends, or a deadline at work.
When you measure stress simply, quickly, and regularly, your brain’s alarm calms down because it knows you’re paying attention to its signals. Paying attention is actually the key that turns the stress response down. Just measuring stress a few times a day can make a difference.
2. Focus on the Positive
Pay more attention to what you already have achieved and how you’re building on that, instead of what you don’t have or “have to” do.
If you’re like most guys, you probably want more money or to achieve more success. You may want to run a marathon or go low when you golf. The problem isn’t wanting to be wealthy or more athletic; it’s that you’re likely to think about the goal as a problem or a deficiency in yourself or your life, rather than building on what you’ve already achieved.
For instance, if you want to run a marathon, just the thought might stress you out because training and running a marathon is really, really hard. But if you think about your goal as building your endurance and enjoying the challenge, you’re headed in the same direction, but without false pressure that turns on your alarm.
3. Keep Your Top Priorities In Mind
The best way to handle a meeting that’s gone off the rails or a fight with your kids is to answer one key question: “What’s most important to you at this moment in your whole life?” Is it to criticize your colleagues or fight with your kids, or is it to accomplish the goal that led to the meeting in the first place and to get back to enjoying your kids?
When you re-focus on what’s really most important, you can feel your alarm turn down because you’re on track even if no one else is. And co-workers and kids pick up on it when someone is highly focused. Sometimes it’s so contagious that they actually get more focused and calm down too. Even if they don’t, you’re in control, and that keeps your stress response down.
4. Think About Your Options
If you’re in a rut, your alarm will tell you with feelings such as boredom, frustration, or even depression. Most of us forget, when we’re stressed, that we have choices. The alarm makes everything seem hopeless, but it’s really telling you to stop living on automatic pilot and start thinking of every action as a choice.
When doing the same familiar things is a genuine pleasure, great, that’s a good choice. But when they become a rut, your alarm will tell you in no uncertain terms. That’s the time to stop and decide what’s most important to you in life—not just what’s most familiar or easiest. It’s not the specific choice that turns down the alarm; it’s the act of choosing based on what’s important to you.
5. Think About It—Tweet About It
Research with survivors of the worst stress—war, poverty, incarceration—has shown that when they think about what’s most important to them, it turns down their alarm. It’s strange to say, but Twitter is a great way to do just this. Take a minute out of your day to record an event or small epiphany that demonstrates what you care about most; you will turn down the alarm in your brain and re-focus on what’s important to you. Use the hashtag “#1tilt” and you can keep up with other people thinking the same you are.
Each of these solutions is a way to think differently about stress than most of us have been taught. They don’t take a lot of time or a gym membership. They do need to become a routine. When you make the intentional effort to think clearly about what’s really most important to you, then your stress level goes down because the alarm in your brain knows you’re in control.
Take our quiz here to find out how stressed you are.
Jon Wortmann is an author, minister, and consultant to educational, non-profit, start-up, and Fortune 100 organizations. He is the author of Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence and The Three Commitments of Leadership. After graduating from the Harvard Divinity School, Jon began his career working in hospitals, churches, and with the homeless.
Featured photo by kennymatic