Is She More Anxious Than He Is? Probably. Here’s Why.

Sitting with legs over bench side and anxious expressionI know what it’s like to have anxiety disrupt or take over your life. That’s why I chose to specialize in working with anxious women. From a very early age, feeling anxious was an everyday occurrence for me. I developed anxiety because I was abused as a young girl, and for much of my life I didn’t know what to do with those feelings.

When abuse occurs, our bodies store the “memory.” When we don’t work through or resolve the trauma, it stays with us and shows up as anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions.

I’ve learned through therapy and self-study that I can manage my anxiety, but it takes effort and practice. Because I understand how difficult it is to manage anxiety and stress, I want to help other women move toward living their lives with less anxiety, more ease, and a greater sense of self.

Why Women Are More Anxious

Anxiety surfaces when you sense a threat. This perception triggers the part of the brain that wants to keep you safe in the face of danger. When there’s a threat, real or imagined, your body tenses, your breath becomes shallow, and your heart rate increases. This physical reaction is known as your fight-or-flight response, and it’s tied to one of the most primitive parts of the brain, called the amygdala. The flight-or-fight response developed back in the day when humans had to fight off wild animals or other predators.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the amygdala is more reactive in women than it is in men—thus, they’re more likely to become anxious. In fact, women from puberty through middle age are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety.

But brain chemistry is only part of the puzzle. Other factors influence why women are more likely to be anxious and why they are more likely to have anxiety at an earlier age than men.

Other Pieces of the Anxiety Puzzle

Here are some statistics on violence against women from the World Health Organization and the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
  • 30% of women in relationships reported that their partner physically or sexually abused them. That does not include verbal or mental abuse, so the number of women who have been abused in relationships is actually larger.
  • Women ages 12 and up are 138% more likely than men to be a victim of violent crime committed by a partner.

Since women are more likely than men to experience violent crime and abuse, it makes sense they’d be more anxious than men. Remember that when we’re traumatized, it activates the primal, fight-or-flight part of the brain. So, not only are women more likely to be traumatized, but their fight-flight response kicks in more often and they’re more likely to be anxious.

Remember that when we’re traumatized, it activates the primal, fight-or-flight part of the brain. So, not only are women more likely to be traumatized, but their fight-flight response kicks in more often and they’re more likely to be anxious.

Trauma and the ACEs Study

Sadly, anxiety isn’t like an on/off switch. It builds up in the body and nervous system. Studies have shown that exposure to child abuse, especially if the abuse lasts a long time, can change how the body manages stress.

The Adverse Childhood Effects (ACEs) study is a long-term study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Volunteers were scored on how many adverse childhood events they had experienced. The study scored 10 adverse events, including:

  • Witnessing abuse
  • Experiencing abuse
  • Neglect
  • Household substance abuse
  • Imprisonment of a household member

The study followed the volunteers over many years and found that the greater number of ACEs a person experiences in their lifetime, the more likely they are to have developmental, physical, and mental health conditions.

Other studies have shown that adverse events in childhood can lead to a rewiring of the brain’s circuits, creating a state of chronic stress in which it becomes hard for the brain to go back to a non-stressed state.

So, if women are more likely to be abused, and abuse has long-term effects on mental health and how the brain manages anxiety and stress, it’s no wonder women are twice as likely as men to have anxiety!

Mindfulness and Meditation Can Reduce Anxiety

The good news is, research shows the brain is way more elastic than anyone knew. That means we can, with effort and practice, rewire the brain circuitry and create new neural pathways.

Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to decrease the size of the amygdala, the fight-flight response center of the brain, and to decrease the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we use for thoughtfulness, curiosity, and problem-solving. That means we can become less reactive (in other words, feel less anxious) with a regular practice of meditation and mindfulness. And when we’re less anxious, we’re less likely to be constantly thinking, worrying, and planning about the past and the future.

In future articles, I will discuss how to introduce and bring more mindfulness into your daily life. With daily practice, you, too, can feel less anxious and stressed and experience more calm and less reactivity, allowing you to live your life with more ease and intention.

References:

  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Facts. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/women/facts
  2. Catalano, S., Smith, E., Snyder, H., & Rand, M. (2009). Female victims of violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvv.pdf
  3. About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
  4. McEwen, B. (2012). Brain on stress: How the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/109/Supplement_2/17180.full
  5. Violence against women. (2016). World Health Organization. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
  6. Wolkin, J. (2015, September 20). How the brain changes when you meditate. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/how-the-brain-changes-when-you-meditate

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, therapist in Annapolis, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 8 comments
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  • maggie

    maggie

    September 12th, 2017 at 10:33 AM

    Although I do not see anxiety as a weakness, I do think that it is something that plagues more women than men and I also think that most of us have learned to live with it in a way that perhaps the other sex wouldn’t accept or want to live with. It simply seems to be a cross that women must bear, to live with that anxiety and to hopefully learn ways to juggle not only the issues that go along with that but the other day to day things that go along with keeping the family going. I think it is just something that many of us feel far more strongly because we react to different triggers in far different ways than men do.

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    September 12th, 2017 at 3:40 PM

    Hi Maggie- I hope to address how to better manage anxiety in future posts. My hope would be that we, as women, no longer have to bear the cross of anxiety, but learn to identify when it shows up and manage it in the moment.

  • Carrington

    Carrington

    September 12th, 2017 at 2:02 PM

    Of course I am more stressed than he is.
    I work and pay the bills. He sits around and does very little to nothing all the time, or travels a bit for work and then that’s it.
    Yes I know he brings home some money too but I am the primary money maker so so many of the financial responsibilities fall squarely on my shoulders.
    There are days when I would like to run away and disappear.

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    September 12th, 2017 at 3:44 PM

    Carrington- That sounds very stressful and it would make me anxious too! Money issues can be a very triggering topic for many people. We bring all the stuff we learned about money growing up into the situation, plus whatever is happening within the relationship and in the moment.

  • Carrington

    Carrington

    September 13th, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Do you think that it would be wrong of me to sit down and insist that he pull more financial weight at home? I am afraid that if I do he will just want to call it quits, and even though there are days when I definitely feel that this wouldn’t bother me in the least bit, at the end of the day I still have a hard time envisioning us apart.

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    September 13th, 2017 at 2:13 PM

    Carrington- Relationships are complicated, they take a lot of work and you have to do what’s right for you.

  • Mindy

    Mindy

    September 15th, 2017 at 11:54 AM

    In my home it is the opposite.
    My husband has always been more of the worrier, I guess because he is the one who works outside the home and we really don’t have that much money.
    I would like to contribute but I stay home with the boys and day care would cost more than what I could make with my limited experience at really doing much of anything.
    I try to tell him all the time that we are good as long as the bills are paid but I think that he thinks he is letting us down because we don’t have that much extra left over at the end of every month.
    I wish that I could convince him that I am alright with this as long as we are good with each other ad for the boys.

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    September 16th, 2017 at 5:59 AM

    Every relationship is unique and has it’s own set of struggles, but money (or lack or it) is like a common theme of conflict for many couples. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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