Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a form of medically serious anxiety characterized by persistent, extreme…
Are Women Wired to Worry?
More than 40 million Americans struggle with some form of anxiety disorder and women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with one. Having an anxiety disorder means coping with everyday life while feeling anxious and worried, with sweaty palms and a pounding heart, with a paranoid sense that something bad is going to happen, or even with the threat of a looming panic attack. This is what millions of women deal with daily, but why they are more likely than men to experience anxiety is still a mystery.
This is a controversial idea and one that many people are reluctant to talk about for fear of appearing sexist. There may be some truth to it, though. In 1990, researchers discovered a brain signal that they called the ERN, or error-related negativity signal. This is an electrical wave in the brain, which can be seen on brain scans, produced when a person makes a mistake while trying to complete some type of task. People who worry more create a bigger ERN.
In one study regarding the ERN, researchers scanned the brains of both male and female participants while they took a simple test. The study subjects also completed the “Penn State Worry Questionnaire,” a survey that is commonly used by professionals to assess a person’s level of anxiety. The results of the study showed that women who scored higher on the questionnaire, those with more anxiety, had much bigger ERN signals after making mistakes on the test.
The questionnaire indicated several male participants were also big worriers, but they did not show the same big ERN signals that the high-anxiety women did. As the tasks on the test became more difficult, the anxious women made more mistakes and created more ERN signals. Women seem to have a more severe biological response to worrying and anxiety than men do, according to this study.
Other studies have backed up the idea that women are naturally more inclined to worry. For instance, female brains seem to respond more to certain stress hormones, creating more worry and anxiety. The higher testosterone levels in men seem to protect them against the high stress that women feel.
Are Girls Being Trained to Worry?
Another part of the debate over anxiety in women involves the way girls are raised. It is a little bit like the nature and nurture debate. Are girls biologically wired to worry more or is it their environments that make them that way? Research tells us that women are more likely to worry about external things like the economy, crime or terrorism. We also know that women are more likely to self-criticize and to over-think and worry about problems.
Some new research suggests that theses aspects of a woman’s psyche are not all biological, but more a product of our current social and cultural environment. Surveys of children have shown that up to the age of 11, boys and girls are equally likely to experience anxiety. By the age of 15, however, girls are up to six times more likely to have some type of anxiety disorder.
Researchers believe that the way in which parents react to their girls and boys accounts for the later differences in anxiety levels. Girls who show a tendency toward shyness or worry are reinforced. Boys who display these tendencies are more likely to be punished. Girls’ outbursts are often treated with care and concern, while boys are essentially told to suck it up and stop crying. This coddling that girls are more likely to receive may predispose them for later anxiety and other negative feelings.
Because of the different ways in which girls and boys are often treated, boys grow up to have better coping strategies. Girls grow up with fewer abilities to cope with negative situations, and therefore have more anxiety and tend to worry more.
The good news for women who suffer from anxiety disorders is that knowledge is power. As we begin to talk more about these psychological disorders and the gap between men and women, women will feel empowered. Treatment is available for anxiety disorders and it works. With counseling and appropriate medication, women can learn to worry less and to better cope with negative situations.