Why Women Experience Anxiety Symptoms Earlier Than Men

anxiety, women, susan biegel, md.

Anxiety is a very real medical condition that can have devastating consequences for those who suffer from it. If you have an anxiety disorder yourself, you know that dealing with your symptoms successfully isn’t just a matter of "calming down” or taking a deep breath (although well-meaning friends and relatives may think otherwise). Like other mental health issues, anxiety is often misunderstood, sometimes even by medical professionals. That’s partly due to an underlying stigma that’s been associated with mental health issues for centuries. The fact is, the brain is an organ, and as with any organ, a problem with the way the brain functions can cause lots of unpleasant symptoms, including anxiety.

Anxiety is also a very varied medical condition, and it can affect people in very different ways. Research shows women are far more likely to have anxiety disorders than men — according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than twice as likely. What's more, they also tend to develop the symptoms of anxiety earlier in life compared to men. The big question is, why?

Understanding anxiety

First, it’s important to understand what’s meant by “anxiety disorder.” Just as having clinical depression is about a lot more than feeling sad from time to time, anxiety disorders aren’t just about being nervous or anxious on occasion. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says people with anxiety disorders experience “excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.” The word “excessive” is key; it means people who suffer from anxiety tend to become much more anxious than the average person, and they may become anxious a lot more often, with symptoms triggered by events or emotions that may cause little to no anxiety in other people.

Anxiety disorders can be divided into different types, depending on what elicits the anxious responses. The most common types include:

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is associated with extreme fear or worry that something will happen to another person while you’re apart. It doesn’t take a major or long separation to trigger these feelings; even leaving for work or to run errands can cause feelings of worry and stress.

Social anxiety

People with social anxiety are very uncomfortable in social situations, especially unfamiliar situations or situations where at least some attention may be focused on them.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) tends to ruminate, worry, and even obsess over many different issues. People with GAD may become withdrawn and try to avoid social contact.

It’s also worth mentioning that while anxiety begins in the brain, it can manifest in many physical ways, causing nausea, vomiting, headaches, problems with sleep, eating disorders, and of course, emotional responses like crying. Chronic stress caused by anxiety may also increase the risk of other illnesses and diseases. Many people with anxiety also suffer from depression.

Women and anxiety

While no one knows for sure why women tend to become anxious more than men or to develop anxiety disorders earlier in life, researchers believe it's linked with the hormonal changes a woman experiences, beginning in her early teens. While boys also go through hormonal changes at that time, the fluctuations are less intense and more gradual. Differences in brain chemistry may also play a role. Female brains may not process specific neurotransmitters in the same way as male brains, making them more prone to stress responses and less able to cope with specific stimuli and triggers. Similar differences may affect the way a woman copes with stress, causing her to ruminate on stressful events for more prolonged periods. The natural “fight-or-flight” system is also triggered more readily in women than in men, which means they may experience stress reactions more quickly. Finally, women tend to be victims of abuse more often than men, and the effects of abuse can have a significant bearing on a woman’s levels of anxiety, beginning at a very early age.

The bottom line is, regardless of the physiologic impact of anxiety, if you suffer from an anxiety disorder, getting treatment is the first step toward feeling better — and improving your mental and overall health, as well. Susan Biegel, MD, offers an array of options for managing anxiety and related disorders. To learn more about how you can learn to manage your anxiety disorder, book an appointment online today.

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