Like a lot of men, I’m good at two of the three pillars of optimal health—nutrition and exercise—but weak at the third: stress control. A suave demeanor notwithstanding, my inner life is nowhere near as serene as doctors recommend.
For a long time, I sneered at stress control. Stress was a symptom of something called a “challenging life,” of a man at full throttle. And what’s so dangerous about that? But slowly, as science has catalogued the thousand potential nicks stress causes—including diabetes, depression, and erectile droop—that attitude has started to seem less swaggering and more…um, stupid. I’ve started to imagine catabolic stress hormones skulking around inside me, undermining the tonic of all those miles I’d run on icy mornings and all those sprouts I’d eaten. And then, when I once let fretting about something trivial wreck a great family day, the truth became clear: By midlife, a man ought to be the master of his mind, not an apologist for its truancies. So I did something drastic. I asked my know-it-all therapist brother-in-law for advice.
“You only think you want to cut your stress,” began Dr. Friedman. “But in fact, you love it. All men need stress to be the stars of our self-scripts. All our heroes slay the dragon or swim the Hellespont.” According to the good doctor, we were brainwashed in boyhood with articles of male faith that have become a mental home page through which we funnel our experiences. These “masculinity myths” are so deeply embedded that we’re no more aware of them than a salmon is aware of the stream.
“But stress reduction challenges our notion of authentic masculinity,” he said, building to his smug punch line: “Heroes don’t chill.”
It kills me to type the following words, but the instant he said it, I knew it to be deeply true. Apparently, we’ve got no hope against stress unless we stop wasting time trying to manage its proximal causes—bills, traffic, thankless children—and address the root causes. He suggested a four-step plan:
Step 1: Identify the pro-stress guy myths, our cognitions.
Step 2: Understand that they’re just things we believe, not facts about life.
Step 3: Challenge them whenever they raise their ugly heads.
Step 4: Gradually replace them with antidote cognitions.
Under protest, he offered five common guy thoughts that make us stressed—and five substitutions that might make us more serene. For more great stress-fighting tactics, read our extensive Full-Day, Minute-by-Minute Game Plan for Conquering Stress in Any Situation.
STRESSFUL MALE MYTH #1: Men are masterful
We were raised on a diet of willful masculinity. If we were lucky, our fathers read us stouthearted poetry: Henley’s “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul…”) and Kipling’s “If” (“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same…”). But even if Dad wasn’t big on verse, the culture insisted that real men were in command of their lives. The cowboy makes his own rules as surely as the entrepreneur. All a man had to do was assert himself and claim the life he had imagined. And even though we realize that life is more complicated than that, the outdated model of manhood sits stubbornly in our hearts, shaming us because we’re not always large and in charge.
Antidote thought: We don’t need all the answers.
The metaphors abound. The suspension bridge that won’t sway in the breeze ends up on the bottom of the bay. My favorite says that you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. A man needs control of the general path of his life but not of every situation. Sometimes a man’s got to drop the reins and go for the ride, trust that life has a plan for him. Men are formed by their faith as surely as they are by their determination. And for more great ways to calm yourself, here are 10 Ways Successful Men Cut Stress.
STRESSFUL MALE MYTH #2: Everybody’s an idiot
Somehow putting down the other guy exalts us, or so we imagine. And so too often, we grow a turtle shell of cynicism that, to be sure, protects us from appearing naive but also seals us off from enjoying the rest of our tribe. That’s stressful. Being alone always is.
Antidote thought: Some people are great, sometimes.
Sure, people often behave badly, but it takes no higher intelligence to notice it. If you habitually favor the jaded version of events, take a beat to remind yourself that not all people are stupid. I, for example, am not an idiot. Nor is the doctor who diagnosed your mother’s cancer. Nor is the second-grade teacher who took such an interest in your son. You’ll cut your mental stress and, doctors say, improve your endothelial health by resisting reflexive sourness. (Feeling better already? For more great health advice, check out The 100 Easiest Ways to Be a Healthier Man Right Now.)
STRESSFUL MALE MYTH #3: Life ought to be fair
I know, I know, you not only have more talent than he does but you work harder than he does, too. Moreover, you’re honest and dependable, whereas he’s a lying sack of…never mind. So why does he have a better job and get all the best women? There is no explanation. The rewards of the world are often parceled out unfairly. Recognize this. And resist becoming a guy who’s got a gripe with the world; that’s a blueprint for stress.
Antidote thought: The caprice makes it fun.
Life would be boring if justice always prevailed, if the right guy always got the job and the girl. Don’t resent the world’s unfairness. See it for what it is—your best chance!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, see here for the 30 Ways Successful Men Cut Stress.
STRESSFUL MALE MYTH #4: Life is a competition
This thought has its roots in a time when resources were scarce and the caveman who was a lousy hunter quickly found himself with no surviving kids to carry his genes down the line. Those high-school coaches who felt that victory revealed character didn’t help.
Antidote thought: Midlevel apes get more
Men who know how to play with others succeed more often than guys who need to carry the ball. Folks who study baboons have found that baboons in the middle of the ladder have lower stress-hormone levels and actually get more sex than their chest-thumping, top-of-the-heap colleagues. And speaking of work: if you’re suffering from too much office anxiety, here are 10 Effective Workplace Stress-Busters.
STRESSFUL MALE MYTH #5: Happiness is out there—somewhere
This idea is memorialized in our founding document: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We feel as though contentment is a quarry and we’re hunting it as we try on relationships, jobs, and the like. Hmmm, maybe a new car will do it? Our life is supposed to “progress” toward something. What? Who knows. But something.
Antidote thought: You’ve already found it.
Because we tend to look ahead at what’s next, we lose the ability to be fully awake in our lives. We have more blessings than our envy lets us realize. There is lots of fruit we just don’t bother to harvest. “If only we’d stop trying to be happy,” wrote novelist Edith Wharton, “we’d have a pretty good time.”
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