Men often measure their health in terms of numbers: how many minutes of exercise they have logged and how many calories and nutrients they have eaten. Ron Nevelow believes too many men overlook an additional factor: emotional health, the kind that comes from bonding with friends and doing activities you love.
When Nevelow was 25 and working as an accountant, he found himself in an emergency room suffering gastrointestinal distress. Figuring out that it was stress-related, he switched careers to a field that made him happier — social work and psychotherapy — and joined an all-male singing group. Now, at 48 and a married father of three, he feels better than ever.
"Being socially connected and bonding with other men has helped me tremendously to relax, become more secure and emotionally stable, and given me connections with men who have supported me in taking better care of myself," he says.
This makes perfect sense to Dr. Carlyle Stewart, a physician at Baylor Medical Center.
"The public-health implications of one's emotional state and its effect on physical health are rather profound, although somewhat controversial," says Stewart, who says that he has long believed that each one affects the other.
"As we speak, research is under way that explores the relationship between one's state of mental health and the subsequent development of physical disorders. There appears to be a distinct relationship between the presence of chronic illnesses and an individual's state of emotional wellness."
TALK ABOUT IT
Men tend to be sensitive about discussions that relate to emotions, especially when it comes to sharing feelings of depression or anxiety that may be perceived of as a sign of weakness or loss of control, Stewart says. For this reason he rarely talks to men about their feelings directly.
Instead, he asks casually about how life has been in general and more specifically, whether there has been a lot of stress at work or at home. If the men mention marital problems or layoffs, he explains how a patient's mood or emotional state can cause biochemical or hormonal changes, which may affect someone physically and mentally.
"An agitated or anxious state may lead to the release of adrenaline, which, in turn, may constrict peripheral arteries, elevate blood pressure and increase blood-sugar levels. On a theoretical basis, and as supported by a growing body of evidence, these changes may aggravate or predispose to hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks and other serious health conditions."
Then he offers tips for a nonmedical way they can treat themselves.
SEEING THE BENEFIT
"Doing something that makes you happy, whether it's hanging out with your buddies, spending time with a friend or loved one, even if it is just watching a funny movie, can boost endorphins, serotonin and levels of other naturally occurring hormones and chemicals that can leave you with a heightened sense of well-being and happiness. Not only that, elevated circulating levels of these and related chemicals may function to enable someone to better cope with stress afterward."
Nevelow says that's exactly how he feels after rehearsing or performing with a men's choir that he joined at a synagogue in Plano, Texas.
"I feel a sense of joy that stays with me for hours," he says.
Geoffrey L. Greif, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships (Oxford University Press, $29.95), says too many men feel alone when problems hit because they don't know how to make friends or are socialized to believe this is not something that strong men do.
At the same time, he says, most men's friendships are fundamentally different from women's friendships, and that's all right. Women may enjoy getting together to talk over lunch. Men are usually more comfortable meeting for a shared activity. When men meet, they may not share anything personal at all.
"The joke is that a man goes over to his friend's house for a couple of hours and comes home, and his wife asks him about his friend's divorce, and the man says, 'It never came up,' " says Greif, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland.
But the option to open up should be there if needed, he notes, quoting from his book: "What is a great friendship? For me the answer is 'Let me sit and watch TV and not talk with my friend about anything other than the game. But, let me also know that if I need to talk to him about something bothering me, I can.' Many men believe they do not have these or similar options in their friendships."