Rolling with the punches: dealing with tragedy
14 Mar 2003
Severe emotional blows in life are inevitable and can make or break a person. Recent research suggests that women cope better than men – is this true and, if so, what can we learn from them?
For better or worse
A Finnish study of more than 2,000 people, published last year in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, concluded that men were more adversely affected than women by major life events such as the death of a relative, being a victim of violence, going through divorce or suffering severe financial difficulties.
Researchers counted up the number of sick days each person took off work, seeing this as an inability to cope. Men came out worse.
But can sick days really be taken as evidence of not coping? With more employers now allowing their staff “mental health days” – days off without having to give notice – this study could suggest that men actually cope better by giving themselves time to recover.
Meanwhile, other studies suggest that stressful events may affect women more than men. Although women are good at talking about their feelings, they are often more sensitive to events affecting, not only them directly, but also family and friends. This means they can suffer more stress than men would in a similar situation.
What men and women want
As with nearly all male/female comparisons, it is incredibly difficult to draw broad conclusions. We all know of some men and women who have coped admirably with terrible events in their life and others who have been laid low by a severe blow. Some studies have naturally concluded that men and women are equally affected.
“Everybody deal with stress differently,” says Dr Larry Culliford, a psychiatrist based in Brighton. “And everybody experiences it. This whole thing of ‘desire’ is the problem. Wanting something, having something and losing it, or having too much of something.
“As soon as you have something – it can be as trivial as the latest fashion garment or as profound as a life partner – there is an inevitability that at some point you will lose it. But it is the mentality at the loss of it that’s important.”
Comfort in a bottle
But men and women do seem to deal with stress differently. “Men tend to put stress into their bodies and women have a more emotive expression,” says Dr Ray Bailey, a psychologist from Buckingham.
Hence the traditional image of a man drinking through hard times and a woman becoming withdrawn and depressed. It remains true to this day, with women still twice as likely to suffer from depression, and many men still finding solace in alcohol.
However, Dr Culliford disagrees. “Twenty years ago, men were likely to suffer from addiction and women from depression, but that’s all a bit old-fashioned these days, a lot less clear cut,” he says. “Society’s rules have changed. Women are drinking more now for example.”
While heavy drinking is increasingly frowned upon, its long-term effects may be less destructive than a bout of heavy depression. Dr Bailey explains, “On one level you are grabbing a bottle. But on another level, the bottle is often used to open up and men will tell strangers in pubs all about their problems.”
Narrowing the divide
What about the idea that women are more sensitive? “I’m quite suspicious of that interpretation,” says Dr Culliford. “Men are very sensitive or, at least, potentially sensitive. Men in caring professions for example. They just have to develop an appropriate coping mechanism.”
He is also dismissive of the idea of women having more friends and so being able to deal with stress better. “It is more important to have one friend who will stick by you, listen to you and help you through it than ten friends who are shallow.”
So, if men and women’s coping mechanisms are beginning to blur into one another and with no particular method seen as superior, just what is the secret to dealing with the worst life has to throw at you?
When to be a willow
Both Dr Bailey and Dr Culliford say the first effect of a stressful life event is a person’s refusal to deal with it. “People tend to just wish this hadn’t happened and try to do as before,” says Dr Culliford. Anything that starts people down the road to accepting what has happened, and so begin dealing with it, is vital.
Maturity and experience are essential, it seems. “Dealing with these events is an emotional healing process,” says Dr Culliford. “And one way to improve is to understand the process. It’s like when you’re a child and you cut your leg and it starts bleeding and you think that it’s never going to stop and you’re going to die.
“But when you get older you realise that the blood is a good thing, that the scab is your body healing itself and that with it there, it is going to mend better than if it wasn’t.”
He says in stressful or tragic situations, these “scabs” are the awful emotions you experience. He says people tend to get angry and want to pick the scab off, to stop the pain. “You almost always get anger, a resistance to what has happened and this is often the least helpful and most destructive but commonest feeling,” Dr Culliford explains.
Learning how to deal with this inevitable anger and let it go is the secret to coping with huge life events. Dr Bailey has a different but equivalent analogy. “Strong trees grow in strong winds,” he says. “But there are times to be an oak and times to be a willow.
“Men still tend to try to be oaks all the time, but the best idea is to be able to yield when that is the right thing to do.
British Psychological Society
Royal College of Psychiatrists