Why Women Are More Likely to Have an Anxiety Disorder

Why Women Are More Likely to Have an Anxiety Disorder

Learn the reasons why extreme worry, trouble concentrating and fatigue are more common in women.

When it comes to health problems, there are obvious differences between men and women. Based on biology, they’re more prone to different types of cancers, and symptoms may present differently between men and women with certain conditions, such as heart attacks. But do differences extend to mental health issues as well? As it turns out, they do. Men are more likely to develop alcohol dependence, while depression and anxiety are two conditions that are more common in women. In fact, when it comes to anxiety, from puberty through age 50, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men.

But why? There are multiple theories, so we turned to psychologist Dustin Shaver, PhD, of Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver, Colorado for the answers.

Here’s what he had to say about why anxiety is more common in women, symptoms to watch out for and some of the most common treatment options.

What is anxiety?
Everyone has occasional anxiety—the feeling you get before a big presentation, a big trip or before you have to make an important decision. But when those feelings of anxiousness don’t go away or get worse as times goes on, it may be something more serious. There are different types of anxiety disorders, but in general, if anxiety is affecting your day-to-day activities, your relationships or causing you problems at work, it’s likely you’ll need to seek treatment. “Therapists, clinicians, and doctors will look at the severity of your symptoms, the amount of distress they are causing, and the duration of your symptoms to figure out what’s going on,” says Shaver.

Here are the types, their characteristics and symptoms:

Generalized anxiety disorder: causes extreme worry and anxiety for long periods of time. Symptoms usually include fatigue, problems concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, uncontrollable worrying and sleep issues.

Panic disorder: causes fear, a feeling of being out of control, worry about when the next panic attack will happen, a fear of going places where you’ve had previous panic attacks. This type of anxiety can also cause a racing heart, palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath and a feeling of choking or being smothered.

Social anxiety disorder: The fear of being judged, embarrassed or rejected; fear of offending someone in a social setting. This disorder causes people to blush, become anxious, nauseous, flushed or hot when around others.

So, why is anxiety more common in women?
Shaver says there are a multitude of theories, but biology has a lot to do with it.

“Research suggests that women are two times more sensitive to a chemical called corticotrophin, which is used to initiate and maintain the stress response within the body,” says Shaver. “This means that biologically, women respond more easily to stress, which in turn may cause increased anxiety.” A female’s brain may not process serotonin⏤the neurotransmitter in the brain that’s responsible for the way we react to stress and anxiety⏤as fast as a male’s brain, either.

A woman’s fight-or-flight response is also more active than a man’s. A woman’s brain responds more quickly and stays stimulated longer than a man’s during stressful situations. This difference in response could be a result of hormone levels, like estrogen and progesterone. “Women, from an evolutionary perspective, benefited from having a more sensitive stress response in order to keep children and themselves safe from dangerous environments and situations,” says Shaver.

There are other risk factors for anxiety too, such as genetics (experts think anxiety runs in families) and exposure to traumatic events, like abusive relationships or attacks.

What to do about anxiety
Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you’re going to be more anxious, says Shaver. But it’s important to recognize the symptoms and see a therapist if persistent, anxious thoughts and feelings interfere with your daily routines. There are many different treatment options that can help you calm down and feel better. “Research demonstrates that therapy is highly effective and has long-lasting benefits when it comes to anxiety disorders,” Shaver says.

Shaver says that when he explains anxiety to his patients, he describes it as the body and mind’s way of saying they need to do something different with the present situation. “It’s important to look at anxiety not as wrong or bad, but an opportunity to make some changes when it comes to your stressors.”

Here are some of the most common anxiety treatments, both long and short-term.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Talk therapies can help you learn how to think, behave and react during situations and events that cause you anxiety or fear.

Support groups: Sharing what you’re going through—both your difficulties and your successes—will allow you to connect with others going through the same experiences. Other people going through the same things can also offer support during times you’re having trouble, or when you need advice.

Stress management: Stress-management techniques, like meditation, can help calm your mind; these can be used along with talk therapies.

Lifestyle changes: Certain things like caffeine and cold medications may make symptoms of anxiety worse. It’s important to discuss your medications with your therapist so they can determine if you need to lessen your use. Illicit drug use can also trigger an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety medications: Your healthcare provider may suggest certain medications, like anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs and beta-blockers. While they may help improve your symptoms, they will not cure anxiety completely. Medications are usually recommended in addition to other treatments, such as therapy.

If anxiety is left untreated, it can cause a variety of other health issues, like high blood pressure and a weakened immune system, says Shaver. And untreated anxiety can make the actual symptoms of anxiety worse. With so many treatment options, managing the condition is certainly possible. The first step is reaching out for help.

Medically reviewed in April 2018.

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