You could say each of us – men or women – experience anxiety and it’s true.  Anxiety is a normal response to stress and since stress is ever present, there will be times when we also experience anxiety.  Anxiety can be defined as excessive fear, worry, and restlessness along with muscle tension which can become overwhelming, disabling and hard to control.  There’s also a good chance it will affect your day-to-day life.  People with anxiety are more likely to miss days from work and are less productive. Young people with anxiety are less likely to seek higher education or complete it if they do. In the United States, we have our share of anxiety as anxiety disorders affect almost 1 in 5 adults.

But, women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Beginning already at puberty and up to age 50 and older, women will experience greater rates of anxiety than men. 

The term “anxiety disorder” refers to specific psychiatric disorders that involve extreme fear or worry and can include generalized anxiety disorder or GAD, panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias.

Anxiety has not always been given much importance in mental health research.  Much of the focus has been on depression, which is an important issue, but anxiety is also equally important.

Why do women have more anxiety than men?

You would think that gender wouldn’t play a role in feeling anxious. Everyone has feelings about what’s going on in their life – good or bad.  So why are women diagnosed with anxiety at higher rates than men?

It boils down to several factors contributing to higher rates of diagnosed anxiety in women.   These factors range from fluctuating hormones and brain chemistry to differences in how men and women cope.  If you consider that fact that the pure bodily and hormonal changes women go through during their life – menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, postpartum shifts, and menopause – that alone is enough to result in a higher state of anxiety.

Here are some factors that relate to this:

·      The monthly menstrual cycle can affect anxiety levels

·      Female hormones add to a more easily activated fight-or-flight response

·      The hormone testosterone, which is more prevalent in men, has been shown by research to help ease anxiety symptoms.

·      The surge of estrogen and progesterone that occurs during pregnancy can increase the risk for obsessive compulsive disorder, characterized by disturbing and repetitive thoughts, impulses and obsessions that are distressing and debilitating.

Besides biological mechanisms contributing to anxiety in women, women and men seem to experience and react to events in their life differently. When faced with stressful situations, women and men tend to use different coping strategies. Women commonly tend to think very deeply or mull over a life stressor resulting in higher states of anxiety while men engage in more active problem-focused coping.   Men automatically begin looking for a solution while women have to sit and ruminate on it.

Women who have experienced physical or mental abuse are also more likely to develop anxiety disorders. Any form of abuse during childhood has also been associated with changes in brain chemistry and structure.  According to research, women who have experienced sexual abuse may have abnormal blood flow to the hippocampus, a brain region involved in emotional processing.

How does anxiety affect us physically? 

Anxiety can commonly be manifested through physical changes. It is common for a person experiencing severe anxiety to have somatic sensations such as sweating, trembling, or shortness of breath.

Emotionally, anxiety can result in feeling out-of-control, being scared or having very negative or disturbing thoughts. 

How to cope with anxiety 

Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can do to manage anxiety. Here are 3 tips to help you cope when anxiety strikes:

1.  Take a time out to breathe 

When anxiety rears its ugly head, take a time out and pinpoint what is making you feel anxious or nervous. Often anxiety comes from worrying about a future or past event.  Regardless of what you are worried about, you need to stop and be mindful of the present moment. Anxiety has this ability to cause you to lose your grip – stop and clear your mind of worry and bring awareness back to the present. Regain control by sitting down and taking a few deep breaths. This can restore a sense of balance, bringing you back to the present moment.

2.  Pinpoint exactly what is bothering you 

Next time you notice physical sensations of trembling or a rapid heartbeat while anxious thoughts fill your mind, figure out the root of your anxiety, what’s bothering you. Practice writing in a journal what is causing your anxiety.  Is it an upcoming event, worry over a past negative encounter with someone, or feelings of being overwhelmed with life?  By tracking your anxious feelings, this can help uncover what the root causes are.

3.  Redirect your focus away from anxiety

At times it may be helpful to simply redirect your focus on something other than your anxiety. It could be reaching out to others with a phone call or visit, do some work around your house, or do an activity or hobby you enjoy. Here are a few ideas to take anxiety out of the picture:

·      Listen to music

·      Go for a walk

·      Clean or organize around your house

·      Engage in a creative activity such as drawing, painting, or writing

·      Read a good book or watch a funny movie

·      Pray or mediate

Anyone who is experiencing anxiety and panic symptoms should talk with their doctor or other professionals who treat anxiety disorders. They will be able to address any concerns you have, provide information on diagnosis, and discuss your treatment options.

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