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.
This makes perfect sense to Dr. Carlyle Stewart, an internal-medicine physician on the medical staff of Baylor Medical Center at Plano.
"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."
At the same time, he acknowledges that this can be a tough sell to many of his male patients.
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 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 Kol Rina, a men's choir that he joined at Anshai Torah, a conservative synagogue in Plano.
"I feel a sense of joy that stays with me for hours afterward," he says.
It had been a leap for him, too, as he followed a longtime desire to sing, even though he had never done so before. The other men in the choir were supportive in unexpected ways.
"My mother died after my first year with the group. And they all came to sit shiva with me," he said, referring to the Jewish tradition of grieving for the dead. "I felt cared about."
Geoffrey L. Greif, author of "Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships" ( Oxford University Press, $29.95), says too many men feel isolated and 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.
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."
Nevelow says that working as a nonacademic counselor at the Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, he sees the early effects of that socialization in teens. The girls speak up about their problems and worries, but the boys who are under stress are reluctant to seek help or open up to their male peers because it doesn't seem like a manly thing to do. That's a perception he would like to help change.
"As a psychotherapist, I think it is essential that we have people to talk to," noting that this has allowed him to weather life challenges over the years. "I would like to see others find these healthy male friendships, too."