At ease, men. And that's an order!

Modern man responds to stress by working harder instead of relaxing, exercising and being pampered. Benjamin Mee reports

Benjamin Mee
Tuesday 30 January 1996 00:02

There was a time when male insensitivity was at a premium. Male traits such as single-mindedness and the stiff upper lip served us well when tracking a wounded gazelle across the sun-baked savannah. But men who paused to pick flowers or to worry about their shoulders peeling were less likely to pass on their genes than those predisposed to plough on past the pansies in pursuit of the kill. Today, however, such macho characteristics are largely redundant. Versatility, coupled with the ability to cope and remain calm through active relaxation, are now survival skills; physical prowess is virtually irrelevant. Clearly the flower- pickers were ahead of their time: taking time out to do something nice, to relax, improves your productivity. But old habits die hard and most men have not learnt how to relax.

"Men are task-oriented, so they respond to stress by working harder, which is all wrong," says Professor Cary Cooper, head of the country's largest stress-research team, at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "Women are clearer about their roles, and are able to cope better with stress by tapping into support networks, such as family and friends. The worst thing men do is keep negative emotions buried."

Bottling up emotions makes men more susceptible to the effects of stress, which is itself a prehistoric response dating from the time when the main stressors that men ran into were animals with big teeth tracking the same gazelle. Here the thing to do was "fight or flee", so our bodies responded to stress by preparing for a short burst of intense physical action. Unfortunately these preparations, if not acted upon, leave hormones floating around in the bloodstream that have the side-effect of suppressing the immune system. Hence the established link between long-term stress and illness.

Nowadays stressors are more likely to be psychological, and there is no appropriate physical response comparable with fighting or fleeing which allows the immune system to operate freely. The modern equivalent to fighting or fleeing is to punch your boss, the short-term health benefits of which would soon be swamped by stressful legal implications. Better to learn to endure, like women, by discussing and dissipating stress as it happens. "Men should talk about their emotions more, but they don't," says Cooper. And given that they don't, the best antidote to stress for men is to simulate the savannah and get some exercise to combat the extra residual stress that they carry around.

Anything that gets your pulse rate up - running, rowing, cycling, step machines, aerobics classes - will help to burn up the immunosuppressant hormones. Aerobic exercises build up stamina as well as fitness, which reduces your susceptibility to stress. Resistant exercises, such as weight- training and competitive sports, are good for working out the aggression that is produced by stress.

All forms of exercise bring psychological benefits for both sexes, largely through the sense of achievement at having done them. However, men benefit particularly because they are not so good at coping in other ways. Women are better at looking after their general well-being through guilt-free pampering whose psychological benefits are considered at least as important as any physical benefits, such as improved circulation and lower blood pressure. Massages, facials and an hour in a flotation tank are high up on many women's lists of priorities. It is time they go to the top of men's shopping lists, too.

Five short cuts to inner calm

The back rooms of some of the bigger Body Shops are places of extreme pampering. A facial for men in the Green Room includes a head- and-neck massage (though no longer at London's Victoria branch, because Westminster Council, which includes Soho, has strict rules about how much of a man you can rub down without the appropriate permits). The lights were dimmed and soothing music seeped from a small stereo. My face was deftly washed and oiled, and steam was wafted on to its problem areas - forehead, nose and chin - to prepare for the neutralisation of "blocked pores" (embryonic blackheads). According to the therapist, "A lot of men who come here know that looking well-groomed will help their careers." Pore maintenance as political power-play, on a par with pinstripes and padded shoulders. I left feeling a bit greasy and blotchy, but felt more of the benefit the next day. pounds 23, Green Room, Victoria (0171-931 0575).

Massage has an immediate, hands-on appeal, getting to grips with symptoms and banishing them with physical intervention. I was asked to strip off, then swathed in blankets, with only part of my body being worked on exposed at any time. My masseur, a practitioner for 13 years, used a variety of techniques, including some shiatsu. My toes were tweaked, and hands were laid on gently and firmly. Low lighting, the judicious use of scented oils and a heated massage table helped to create a sense of sanctuary. Having read about the diagnostic capabilities of experienced masseurs, I wondered if there was anything she could tell me about the state of my insides. She said that although there was no anger in my liver, there was some fear in my kidneys, and, typically for a man, "some held back emotion in my solar plexus". Afterwards I stood up straighter and felt lighter on my feet. pounds 27-35 per hour.

Martial arts combine mental and physical discipline and have to be practised regularly to obtain lasting benefits. The popular image of t'ai chi is of people holding imaginary beach balls and moving very slowly under trees, but it is also a well-honed fighting system. The slow movements have practical self-defence applications, which, when mastered, can be performed at speed. According to the instructor Robert Poyton, "As with most martial arts, a level of proficiency sufficient for self-defence can be achieved after about three years." But students should feel the benefits well before then. Concentrating regularly on training and breathing correctly is deeply relaxing, and the confidence built up through learning the techniques and being better able to defend yourself reduces anxiety. "Students soon find that t'ai chi enhances other areas of their lives," says Poyton. "Not meeting force with force, for instance, helps you to reason through situations that could become inflammatory." pounds 25 for four sessions, British Tai Chi Chuan Centre (0181-502 9307).

The idea for flotation tanks came from observing the therapeutic effects of floating in the Dead Sea. Temporarily transcending gravity takes a weight off your mind, and being in body-temperature water blurs the boundaries between what is you and what is not. I adopted the recommended posture and went in search of the emotions that the masseur said were bottled up in my solar plexus. Apart from the 400kg of Epsom salts in the water pinpointing some shaving cuts I didn't know I had, it was very relaxing. When the piped music fades you're on your own and the darkness and weightless leaves you suspended somewhere between asleep and awake. But having cheated gravity for an hour, gravity was not pleased, and I was sucked earthward with twice the usual force for the rest of the day. I booked another session. Aquatonics (0171-229 1123) will provide details of other centres around the country.

For people too stressed to leave their computers, some software from Ultramind may be able to help. You monitor your tension levels on the screen and learn the skills you need to relax. Two tiny electrodes are Velcro-ed to your fingertips and measure changes in electrical current across your skin as your anxiety levels fluctuate. Tuvi Orbach, who helped to develop the system, showed me a red line moving rapidly downwards on the screen. This was my relaxation level. I had to slow the descent by relaxing and concentrating on my breathing. It was surprisingly easy, and the line was soon rising nicely. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? It's a bit embarrassing," said Tuvi. "Not at all," I lied. The line didn't. It plummeted. The trick is to learn to deal with little upsets without getting stressed. The package includes exercises to help develop relaxation techniques to apply to everyday situations. There is even a virtual reality journey to your colon for irritable bowel sufferers. Relax Plus, PC-compatible, pounds 189, Ultramind (0171-600 6777).

How the sexes cope with stress

Isabelle Thorpe, 30, architect Having a dog is relaxing, particularly at the weekends when I can take him for longer walks. My job can be stressful, so I make sure I deal with anything that's bothering me as soon as I can by doing whatever is manageable. I've been good about going to the gym recently - twice a week, which helps me wind down. On non-gym days I might have a glass or two of wine in the evening. Having a meal with friends is another favourite. If I've had a bad day, there are a few friends I'll unburden myself to, but on a strictly reciprocal basis - that's what friends are for. Then I'll have a long hot bath with a face pack on. I see having my hair cut as a bit of a treat, every six weeks or so. I try to avoid slobbing in front of the telly by reading with some nice music on.

Kevin Watts, 32, accountant The short answer is get drunk. If I've had a stressful day, I might hit the Theakstons - no more than four pints on a weekday, though, and generally with my flatmate. Last Friday we went to a charity ball and drank wine and beer with whisky chasers, which was relaxing at the time. We play chess with a few beers sometimes. We may end up fighting, which is good for getting out aggression. We never hurt each other, but the neighbours sometimes complain. Driving my car helps me unwind, but never dangerously - and never over the limit. I can sit in front of the telly for eight hours if someone feeds me. The cinema's good, too, and the theatre, with a few drinks in the interval. And laughing at silly things with friends is the most relaxing thing you can do.

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