Stressed out?

Who isn’t these days? Take a deep breath, now exhale and find out a little about what’s tensing you up and how best to calm down

Times are tough. Nothing is going to change overnight. And with the economic recession bringing job losses, home foreclosures and asset meltdowns, people are feeling more pressure than they were a year ago—or even a few months ago.

Pressure breeds stress. Stress breeds medical problems. Here are a couple of ideas for how to manage stress in your life. Fret not. Relief is on the way.

Stress and relationships

Once again, men are from Mars and women are … well, you know

In his new book, Why Mars & Venus Collide, psychologist and best-selling author John Gray offers the following scenario to show how men often misunderstand women. The woman has just come home from work and, confronted by an overwhelming number of things to do, including making dinner, is feeling terribly stressed.

“Forget dinner,” he says in an attempt to help her reduce her list. “I can just pick up some burritos.”

“You just don’t understand,” she responds. “I have too much to do.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he says, dismissing what she is feeling. “You don’t have to do anything!”

“Yes, I do,” she replies, frustrated. “You just don’t get it.”

The man is trying to help, but instead he’s making things worse. His effort to make her look at the situation from a different perspective only “leaves her feeling more stressed, and misunderstood, as well,” Gray writes. “And he feels defeated as a result of this exchange. After a few years, he won’t even bother to try to help, because it seems that nothing he does works. She will stop expressing her feelings to him, because he doesn’t understand what she needs to relieve her stress.”

Most couples will recognize the scene because they’ve been in similar situations. Stress has a way of making it hard for men and women to communicate. And, in the long term, it can destroy a relationship.

That’s because most of us don’t understand that stress affects men and women in very different ways, Gray maintains. We become stressed for different reasons, and we deal with it in different ways. A failure to understand that can lead to alienation and, too often, divorce.

Gray has written 16 books, but the one that shot him to the top of the pop-psych charts was 1992’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It has sold more than 15 million copies, despite widespread criticism that it lacks scholarly gravitas and that Gray himself—a former Hindu monk and personal secretary to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—lacks proper educational credentials. Millions of people apparently find his insights useful enough to pay for them.

The paradigm underlying all of Gray’s work has to do with the fact that human beings evolved over hundreds of thousands of years under conditions profoundly different from today’s. Until the advent of civilization just 8,000 years ago, humans lived as tribal hunters and gatherers, so naturally they evolved with characteristics that allowed them to survive under such circumstances.

Physically, he says, we have the brains and hormone systems designed, in the case of men, for hunting and protection from dangerous beasts and, in the case of women, keeping the home nest and caring for children. Studies have shown that men have greater spatial skills, focus more tightly and are more independent and aggressive—all skills useful in hunting. Women, in contrast, are more empathic and security-seeking than men and have more developed verbal and social skills. This makes sense, since early women were dependent on each other for child-rearing and mutual support.

Feminists have criticized Gray for creating what they call sexist stereotypes. His response is to say that because he points out these evolutionary differences doesn’t mean he thinks women are incapable of competing with men in the workplace. Obviously, he says, they have done so with great success.

But failing to understand these differences, he argues, is a fundamental source of conflict in modern relationships.

The problem is that today we are so far from being cave dwellers that our bodies don’t know how to respond. Everything else has changed, but they haven’t. Men and women feel a great deal of stress but don’t know how to help each other deal with it.

It begins with hormones. Under stress, men lose testosterone. To recover it, they like to withdraw, to go “back to the cave,” so to speak. After a stressful day at work, they may take a nap or watch TV or go for a run or work on a household project—anything to spend some quiet time recouping.

It’s more difficult for women who work. Not only are they stressed from the job, but when they get home their evolutionary tendency to take responsibility for the household kicks in, and they have a hard time relaxing. Unlike men, who are problem-oriented and tend to focus on one thing at a time, women are multitaskers who can become overwhelmed by the number of items on their to-do lists.

While men reduce stress by building up their testosterone levels, women reduce it by restoring their levels of oxytocin, which Gray describes as a social-attachment hormone. “Levels increase when women connect with someone through friendship, sharing, caring and nurturing and decrease when a woman … feels alone, ignored, rejected, unsupported, and insignificant.”

Too often these differing needs collide. As Scott Wyman, a Chico, Calif., therapist who often works with couples, noted, if a woman wants to talk when the man needs to be alone, “that feels totally exhausting to him.”

On the other hand, if he does talk with her and tries to fix her problems, as men tend to do, her stress will only increase. “Women are talking for the purpose of communication,” Wyman said. “She doesn’t even view this as a problem to be solved; she sees it as a connector.”

Women also need help around the house. Many men understand this and readily pitch in, but some don’t and need training. The worst thing women can do is criticize.

That’s because what men need from their women most of all, Gray says, is to feel successful and appreciated. A woman who understands this will begin by assuring her man that he’s a great guy. That immediately increases his testosterone level and reduces his stress. Then, rather than assuming, incorrectly, that he shares her ability to look around the house and see all that needs doing, she will be explicit about the help she needs, asking him to do specific things. “Honey, I’m really tired today. Mind doing the dishes?” Eventually, he will begin finding ways to help on his own.

Reducing stress is harder for women than for men, Gray says, because they have taken on so much more in their lives. Men “can fulfill only a small portion of the support women need for oxytocin production,” Gray writes. Women need to take responsibility to get what they need to reduce stress in other ways.

He goes so far as to list 100 things a woman can do to reduce stress, from getting a massage and taking a scented bath to growing a vegetable garden and having a picnic with family and friends. Women, who are naturally inclined to put others first, need to understand the importance of taking care of themselves, as well.

When a woman does so, Gray says, she will find that her man wants to “top her off”—to bring her from feeling good to feeling great—by spending time with her.

There’s much more to Gray’s ideas about stress, of course. Readers may disagree with some of them, but his book has the undeniable benefit of putting stress, and the different ways men and women deal with it, front and center as a cause of relationship dysfunction.

Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that when stress is gone, our differences are never a problem. That’s more than enough reason to learn how to help each other reduce our stress levels.