10 October 2008

Are women more anxious than men?

Did you know that of all psychological disorders, anxiety disorders are probably the most common and that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men?

Did you know that of all psychological disorders, anxiety disorders are probably the most common and that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men?

Anxiety is a normal and acceptable facet of human emotion, however, it is when this level of anxiety becomes excessive, when it disrupts normal living, that it becomes a cause for concern. Normal anxiety is an advantageous response that is activated in times of danger or uncertainty and it allows us to take action to deal with the situation at hand.

When anxiety levels reach extreme degrees, such that it interrupts a person’s everyday normal functioning, it becomes an anxiety disorder.

Types of anxiety disorders
Medical and psychological professionals have identified five major types of anxiety disorders. These are:

  • panic disorder in which the person suffers form unexpected and recurring panic attacks
  • phobic disorders in which there are persistent and unrealistic fears of real objects and situations
  • obsessive compulsive disorder, in which the person has continuous and recurrent intrusive thoughts and impulses
  • post-traumatic stress disorder in which a person re-experiences past traumatic events through recurring and intrusive memories and dreams
  • social phobia in which irrational fears of social situations occur
  • generalized anxiety disorder, in which ongoing anxiety and apprehension is experienced in the absence of any specific stressor.

According to recent findings, women are two to three times more likely than men to experience panic. Similarly, women are two times more likely than men to experience generalized anxiety disorder and comparable ratios have been reported for the remaining anxiety disorders.

Why is there a gender discrepancy?
There are many causes of anxiety and various explanations have been put forward to explain the gender discrepancy. One such explanation is that the social position that women occupy precipitates anxiety. Women from all sectors of society seem to have more that their fair share of difficulties. Perhaps one of the most crucial roles that women play is that of caregiver and homemaker, not only to children but also to the elderly, the infirm, disabled and the ill. These pressures impact on women’s well being, often with all these responsibilities these women seldom have time or energy left to invest in their own interests.

This pattern, however, is also seen in working women. These women are invested in their careers not because of lack of interest in their families but because often one bread winner is not enough to make ends meet in today’s difficult times. Often working women begin to feel guilty for neglecting their families, guilt which often leads to anxiety. In addition, a career woman has a double load to deal with. When she comes home from work she often has to assume the role of homemaker and caregiver to those around her. "These women have such hectic schedules that there is often a build up of adrenalin, that can also precipitate anxiety" says Dr Colinda Linde, a psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg.

Hormonal influences
An additional explanation put forward highlights the importance of reproductive hormones and the related cycles of women. There are many phases in a woman’s life, which are influenced by the level of the different hormones in the body and which may have an effect on emotional and behaviour patterns. The most important hormones dominating throughout a woman’s life span are oestrogen and progesterone. These hormones fluctuate at the onset of puberty, during the menstrual cycle, during and after pregnancy and pre and post meno-pause. This has many implications for the treatment of anxiety, as if one seeks the aid of a medical practitioner, the choice of treatment available could be contingent on a woman’s particular biology and age.

Men under-diagnosed
An alternative explanation holds that perhaps the preponderance of women that experience anxiety may not in fact be a result of a real discrepancy but rather a consequence of anxiety in men going unrecognised and under-diagnosed. For instance, it has been postulated that perhaps men and women have different ways in which they react to stressors; be it emotional or otherwise.

According to leading Johannesburg psychiatrist in private practice, Dr Dora Wynchank, more men are diagnosed with other disorders such as substance abuse Disorder or an Anti-Social Personality Disorder; instead of being diagnosed with the underlying anxiety disorder is which is often at the root.

Women seek help
Perhaps the higher rates of anxiety among women are recorded simply because women find it easier to seek help, enhanced by the fact that is socially sanctioned, while for men it is often considered taboo to seek help for emotional difficulties. A stressful workday is a good way of illustrating the differences between the reaction of men and women to potential anxieties. While a man may resort to alcohol or react aggressively toward his family at the end of a stressful day a women may become tearful, anxious or depressed and consequently seek the help of a psychologist or general practitioner.

Despite the seriousness of anxiety and its related disorders it is not a death sentence or a morbid diagnosis. It is important to note that it can be effectively treated. Most often a combination of both psychotherapy, usually those involving thought and behavior modification, and medication such as anti-depressants and tranquilizers, works best.

Where to go for help
Contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group at (011) 884 1797 or 783 1474/6.

It’s World Mental Health Day. A psychologist and a psychiatrist are standing by to answer your questions on anxiety disorders.

Related Article
Worried about being anxious?


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