If you find yourself sweating, breathing heavily or believing that something bad is about to happen for no known reason, then you might be one of more than 264 million women across the world with anxiety disorder. Psychologists describe this condition as being characterized by profound psychological tension and worried thoughts.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, women are more than twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders as men. Explanations for this may lie in differences in brain chemistry. Hypotheses include the idea that:
- Female brains do not process serotonin as efficiently as male brains, leading to heightened fight-or-flight responses.
- Women have increased presence of hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, in their systems which could heighten fear
- Women may be more sensitive to the stress response hormone, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), found across multiple species of mammal.
In many cases, women use drugs and alcohol to medicate their anxiety. However, while substances can provide some immediate relief, they don’t eliminate symptoms long-term, and can actually make them worse. Because of this, treatment is essential.
Is Anxiety Increasing Among Women?
NIH research suggests that the prevalence of anxiety disorder is 3.4 percent for women, and 1.9 percent for men, with those most likely to experience the condition are between the ages of 30 and 59. However, the numbers may be increasing. For instance, a study published in the Lancet estimated that there were an extra 76 million cases of anxiety globally following the advent of the COVID-19 epidemic, representing an increase of 26 percent from 2019 to 2020.
How Do Women’s Anxiety Symptoms Differ From Men’s?
Men and women experience anxiety differently. For men, common anxiety symptoms include muscle tension, pounding heart, and vertigo. In women, however, the disorder manifests more often as:
- Stomach cramps and indigestion
- Tiredness and weakness
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks or speakers
- A general sense of dread or impending doom
- Heightened irritability
- Problems with sleep and insomnia
- Elevated breathing rate
- Sweating on the palms or armpits
Again, divergent symptoms may result from differences in brain chemistry. Men’s symptoms may be more associated with “fight” whereas women’s are more to do with “flight” or “freeze.”
Types Of Anxiety Disorders That Impact Women
Anxiety comes in various forms, each of which affects women differently.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition in which a person worries excessively about issues relating to their day-to-day lives, such as work, family, food and health. Women with this condition have a tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios, even if they are extremely unlikely to play out in reality. Common GAD symptoms include stomach disorders, muscle cramps and sleep issues.
People with panic disorder go through episodes where they have an overwhelming sense of impending doom and often feel out of control. Women with this condition often report that they “feel like dying” or that they are “losing touch with reality.”
Phobia disorders are similar to panic disorders but differ in the sense that fear only arises from specific situations or aversions. For instance, a woman might only experience anxiety when she is in crowds or lines or when in the presence of certain people.
Women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also at higher risk of experiencing regular episodes of anxiety. PTSD typically occurs when a person experiences a highly stressful or scary event. These include being the victim of or a witness to a violent crime, car accidents, and war experiences.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition where people repeat thoughts and behaviors that cause anxiety. A woman, for instance, might:
- Ruminate on the same situation over and over, without closure or resolution
- Repeatedly clean the house several times per day, even if it already spotless
- Neatly arrange items in the home and become distressed if anyone moves them out of place
Psychologists define OCD as being mild, moderate and severe based on the Y-BOCS severity scale. Those with higher scores (and, therefore, with more severe OCD) are more likely to have:
- Preoccupations with symmetry exactness, religiousness, sex, hoarding-saving, contamination of items in their environemnts, and the body
- Compulsions, including cleaning, washing, counting, repeating, arranging, hoarding and checking
Treatment For Anxiety Symptoms In Women
While the symptoms of anxiety disorder can be severe, there are a range of treatment options available.
The most common approach in the early stages is a combination of medication and counseling. Doctors often prescribe medications for the acute phase of the condition (the most distressing) and then use counseling as a non-pharmacological method for processing the root cause of symptoms long term.
The types of medications you receive will depend on your diagnosis. For instance, your doctor may prescribe:
- Antihistamines and beta-blockers for mild cases of anxiety
- Antidepressants, such as SNRIs and SSRIs for generalized anxiety
- Anticonvulsants, such as pregabalin and gabapentin if you are not responsive to other medications
- Benzodiazepines for immediate relief from panic attacks (such as lorazepam and diazepam)
Again, it is worth noting that medication can relieve symptoms short-term, but it is rarely a cure. Counseling may be more effective long term.
Mental health professionals often recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic psychotherapy.
CBT involves learning behaviors that help the body relax and developing thought patterns to eliminate distressing rumination. By contrast, psychodynamic psychotherapy goes back to childhood and focuses on the relationship-based roots of anxious feelings and then attempts to process them.
Formal counseling sessions only occupy a small fraction of the week. Therefore, mental health professionals encourage women with anxiety disorder to engage in effective stress management techniques outside of the clinic. These might include:
- Joining a yoga or Pilates class
- Practicing regular meditation
- Journaling about one’s experiences
- Practicing mindfulness and becoming aware of one’s own thoughts
- Taking part in a support group comprising trained mental health professionals and other anxiety disorder patients
What Causes Anxiety In Women?
There are many causes of anxiety disorder in women. In the modern world, the vast majority do not relate to an immediate environmental threat.
Top causes include:
- Abuse or neglect by caregivers during childhood or as an adult
- A family history of anxiety disorder or other mental illnesses
- Health issues, such as hormonal changes, thyroid issues or use of medications for other conditions
- A stressful or scary event in the past
What Are The Risk Factors For Anxiety Disorders In Women?
Researchers believe that anxiety disorder develops from a combination of environmental and biological factors. Hormonal changes, for instance, may explain why women are more prone to developing anxiety than men. Women are much more likely to experience bouts of anxiety during pregnancy, puberty and menopause.
However, environmental factors may play a large role in being the triggers for anxiety. Stressful events and circumstances can conspire in changing a biological proclivity for the disorder into a psychological reality.
Common triggers include:
- Insufficient income to maintain a minimal standard of living
- Lack of savings or emergency fund
- Limited social support circle
- Poor relationship with spouse or partner
- Difficulty during pregnancy or labor
- Living with family as a teenager or when older
- Acting as a caregiver
Fortunately, there are multiple coping strategies that you can adopt to reduce the severity of anxiety symptoms, or prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Take More Time For Self-Care
If you can feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, remind yourself that it’s okay to take time out of your day for self-care. Training yourself to look after yourself (instead of other people) is often a necessary part of the road to recovery. Take time out from your day to read, bathe, walk or chat to someone who isn’t dependent on you.
Exercise More Often
In the West, we live sedentary lives. Evidence suggests that this could be contributing to the current increase in anxiety.
Getting around 60 minutes of light exercise per day can greatly reduce anxiety symptoms. Intense exercise for 20 to 30 minutes may release natural feel-good factors that help you feel better immediately.
Meditation is the practice of becoming non-judgmentally aware of your thoughts and emotions and allowing them to pass. Position your true self as the observer of your thoughts. Watching them often makes them less painful. Eventually, you may be able to empty your mind of thoughts entirely and experience the peace of being in the present moment.
Get More Sleep
People with anxiety disorder regularly experience sleep issues. Researchers believe that this may result from excessive arousal of the nervous system.
If you struggle with sleep, take chamomile tea or parsley before bed. These contain the phytonutrient, apigenin, which is a good relaxant. You can also try eating pistachios, a natural source of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
Cut Down On Alcohol And Caffeine
Caffeine makes many people feel jittery. If you like the taste of tea or coffee, opt for decaffeinated products.
Avoid alcohol consumption. While it might temporarily blunt anxious feelings, they invariably come back stronger once the effects of drink wear off.
Anxiety Therapy Help in the Denver Area
Don’t go through anxiety alone. Seek the help of a professional counselor who can make you feel more empowered, fulfilled, and able to take on the challenges of the world. We invite you to call us at 720-551-4553 for a free 20-minute phone consultation with an anxiety specialist. You can read more about our Anxiety therapy services here.
Self Care Impact Counseling envisions a new age of counseling for adolescents, adults, couples & groups that makes a REAL difference with core values of GROWTH | BALANCE | COMPASSION | INNER HARMONY.