What does the research tell us about how you talk about and beat stress? #MHW2016
by Daryl Sweet
‘How do you beat stress’? is the question for Men’s Health Week. How do we talk about stress? And how do we manage it rather than let it build up and harm us?
Stress can be beneficial, a motivating drive that helps you deal with deadlines or important events. However, research shows that the body’s response to continued stress damages our immune system and can lead to illnesses such as heart disease and depression. Unfortunately stressful life events are unavoidable. But research has identified a number of effective strategies to manage it, for instance mindfulness can reduce the symptoms of stress. Social support from friends, family and colleagues provides protection for many people, acting as a buffer between stress and its harmful effects.
Stress is a great focus for Men’s Health Week because men are less likely to recognise, talk about or seek help for stress. While women tend to reach out to others when stressed, men tend to withdraw. This can lead to stress becoming a persistent part of people’s lives. Men may use unhealthy coping strategies such as smoking and alcohol that magnify the damage stress can have on their health. At its most stark 78% of suicides are male but only 38% of referrals to the NHS services that help people suffering from depression and anxiety are by men. In our own research at the McPin Foundation, we have explored how social networks help people with long term mental health problems manage wellbeing. Social networks provide resources that people can draw on to tackle issues like stress. These can be support from others, be it close friends and family or fellow members of a club or society, or the positive boost to confidence and sense of identity that comes from feeling you belong or have a role.
Identifying ways for men to access more social support has become a public health concern. But they don’t have to be run from GPs’ clinics. We evaluated one such programme called Men’s Sheds as part of our Kent Wellbeing Evaluation. These provide a space where men (and women) can come together informally to share tools and skills on practical projects such as repairing bikes. Practical activity programmes like these can contribute towards increased sense of belonging and social support, especially for middle aged men who are less likely to engage in other wellbeing interventions.
However we can’t make the most of these resources if we, as men, feel unable or unwilling to talk about mental health difficulties or to reach out to those around us. Our priority has to be to encourage more men to reach out when they are in need.
This was a theme that came up powerfully at our recent event for people with lived experience of mental health problems to discuss the priorities for mental health in London, (see photo below). Many participants felt that talking about our mental health was particularly important in a busy city where too many men wear stress as a badge of honour rather than being open about its harmful effects.
But we all experience, recognise and talk about stress differently, and it is clear given how many men struggle alone with stress that the way we currently talk about it as (and with) men isn’t working. In evaluations of secondary school mental health awareness programmes, McPin researchers have found girls and boys engaged very differently in sessions and different outcomes were achieved.
At McPin we believe that involving people with lived experience in stress research will teach us more about these nuances. Are we using the right language to engage different types of boys and men in managing stress? Are we talking about it in the right places? Who do different groups of men listen to and respond to? What already works for them in managing stress?
That way as researchers we can make sure we are asking the right questions to identify what works in encouraging more men to recognise, talk about and manage their stress.