Although we have known for some time that stress can cause damage to the heart, the gastrointestinal tract, and other parts of the body, we have recently learned that stress can actually damage the brain. J. Douglas Bremner, M.D., is Director of Mental Health Research at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center, and is editor of Trauma, Memory, and Dissociation and Stress Disorder. In Bremner’s book Does Stress Damage the Brain? he explains, “Research in only the past decade or so has shown that extreme stress has effects on the brain that last throughout the lifespan.”
As a result many of those emotional distresses that we have, in the past, viewed as purely psychological, may be the result of physical damage to the brain. “A group of psychiatric disorders related to stress, what I call trauma-spectrum disorders,” says Bremner, “could share in common a basis in brain abnormalities that are caused by stress.”
Bremner continues saying that “Trauma-spectrum disorders are those that are known to be linked to stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorders, borderline personality disorders, adjustment disorder, depression, and anxiety.” I would include the Irritable Male Syndrome as another one of these trauma-spectrum disorders.
Trauma-spectrum Disorders and Gender: Why Women Cry and Men Run Away
One of Dr. Bremner’s experiments helps us understand the difference between the way men and women experience these disorders. He gathered a group of former depression patients. With their permission, he gave them a beverage that was spiked with an amino acid that blocks the brain’s ability to absorb serotonin, the neurotransmitter that allows us to feel upbeat and happy.
Using the new brain scan techniques he took pictures of the subject’s brains to see if he could pinpoint the areas that were associated with depression. If we knew the areas of the brain associated with depression, he reasoned then we could come up with better medications and treatment approaches. In looking at the color brain scans he was able to show that a loss of serotonin affects all three major areas of the brain.
What I found even more fascinating were the gender specific differences in the way men and women reacted to the potion that blocked the effects of the serotonin. Typical of the males was John, a middle-aged businessman who had fully recovered from a bout of depression, thanks to a combination of psychotherapy and Prozac. Within minutes of drinking the brew, however, “He wanted to escape to a bar across the street,” recalls Bremner. “He didn’t express sadness … he didn’t really express anything. He just wanted to go to Larry’s Lounge.” Contrast John’s response with that of female subjects like Sue, a mother of two in her mid-thirties. After taking the cocktail, “She began to cry and express her sadness over the loss of her father two years ago,” recalls Bremmer. “She was overwhelmed by her emotions.”
So we see a very real contrast in the ways men and women respond to a loss of the brain chemicals that keep our emotions in a healthy balance. Men tend to withdraw and go for the alcohol to prevent us from feeling our pain. Women tend to share their emotions with others. I have found that chronic irritability is one of the principal ways men withdraw, rather than dealing directly with our feelings.
Men and Stress: What’s a Man to Do?
Men and stress can be a killer combination. We can make decisions that help eliminate or decrease the stress response in life by once again paying attention to the physical, emotional, and chemical components of our health. Physical stressors include accidents, physical inactivity, and changes in temperature. Chemical stressors include sugar, high fat foods, cigarettes, alcohol, and toxic work or environment. Emotional stressors include fear, anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
When we get out of balance with our lives, many of us overload on all aspects of our stress capacity, stopping our regular exercise regimen, eating poorly, and navigating family get-togethers or loneliness. Come up with a plan for how you can circumvent illness by planning ahead.
Make sure you are able to identify when your stress levels are high, and have some ways of interrupting the process. An increased heart rate, sweat, tense muscles, irritability, moodiness and dilated pupils are clear signs of fight or flight and an increased stress response.
When you notice these signs stop what you’re doing and check in with yourself for at least five minutes. Check in and see if HALT is a problem. These letters stand for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These are some of the more common ways that stress manifests. Ways to re-set the system are going for a brisk walk, taking a few deep breaths, visualizing yourself somewhere refreshing, relaxing tight muscles, and shifting your perception to a different space. This does not have to be a long task. Just check in and re-set every hour until you get the hang of it and feel some shift in your overall tension pattern.
You can practice using the energy healing tools I describe in my book, MenAlive: Stop Killer Stress with Simple Energy Healing Tools. Learn about Earthing, Heart Coherence, Attachment Love, and Emotional Freedom Techniques (Also known as EFT or Tapping). These simple tools combat stress in men and the women who love them. You can get your brain back in balance and allow you to more effectively deal with the ups and downs of life without becoming overwhelmed or stressed out.
Please share your story or experience.
Together we heal.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalshotgun/454380458/