By Jed Diamond PhD, from the Good Men Project website, May 08, 2012
It’s no secret that stress levels are on the rise. Much of our present-day stress involves our minds going around and around worrying about what could happen. “Stress—or as I like to think of it, the mind that’s running on overdrive—is now considered to be a leading factor in numerous illnesses,” says Woodson Merrell, MD, chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and author of The Source. “By some estimates, up to 80 percent of all illnesses are stress induced.”
Although stress impacts everyone, men are particularly vulnerable. We see that in the fact that men die sooner and live sicker than do women. Statistics from the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that men have a higher death rate for the ten leading causes of death (numbers are deaths per 100,000 population):
Since we know that stress is implicated in most causes of death, what are the most common stressors? We often think of such things as time pressures, unhealthy lifestyles, traffic jams, and financial worries. But major new research reported by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, indicates that more important stressors are ones we probably are not even aware exist.
The Three Killer Stressors Few People Know About
If we take a moment to think about it, the stress that impacts us the most strongly have to do with other people, particularly those who are close to us. Wilkinson and Pickett say that “the most powerful sources of stress affecting health seem to fall into three intensely social categories.”
1. Trauma experienced when we were children.
2. Low social status.
3. Lack of friends.
Early Trauma Affects Health Years After It Occurs
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study has demonstrated that childhood experiences affect adult health decades after they first occur. The ACE Study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. They found that childhood abuse, neglect, and exposure to other adverse experiences are common. Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more.
Further, it was found that each adverse childhood experience increased the risk of health problems later in life. For instance, compared to people with an ACE score of 0, those with an ACE score of 4 or more were twice as likely to be smokers, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs, and 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide.
Low Social Status Is Stressful
Sally Dickerson and Margaret Kemeny, both psychologists at the U.C.L.A. found that the stressors that most impacted our health were ones that threatened our sense of self-worth in the eyes of others. They collected findings from 208 published reports of experiments in which people’s cortisol (stress hormone) levels were measured while they were exposed to an experimental stressor.
They classified all the different kinds of stressors used in experiments and found that “tasks that included a social-evaluative threat (such as threats to self-esteem or social status), in which others could negatively judge performance, particularly when the outcome of the performance was uncontrollable, provoked larger and more reliable cortisol changes than stressors without these particular threats.”
Lack of Friends Can Be a Real Killer
“All the usual risk factors for heart disease—smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and a high-fat diet—account for only half of all cases of heart disease,” says heart expert Dr. Dean Ornish. “Every so-called lifestyle risk factor laid at the door of cardiovascular illness by the medical community has less to do with someone having a heart attack than does simple isolation—from other people, from our own feelings and from a higher power.”
Thomas Joiner, author of Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, calls men “the lonely sex.” And it points out that it gets worse as we age. “Men’s main problem is not self-loathing, stupidity, greed, or any of the legions of other things they’re accused of,” says Joiner. “The problem, instead, is loneliness; as they age, they gradually lose contacts with friends and family, and here’s the important part, they don’t replenish them.”
As the suicide statistics verify, men often feel increasingly alone as they get older, even when they are surrounded by those who care about them. “A postmortem report on a suicide decedent,” says Joiner, “a man in his sixties read, ‘He did not have friends…he did not feel comfortable with other men…he did not trust doctors and would not seek help even though he was aware that he needed help.’”
The importance of friends reminds me of the refrain from “Desperado” by the Eagles. “You better let somebody love you … before it’s too late.”