Got Anxiety? Do women think too much?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a three-part series about gender differences in relation to phobias and anxiety and panic disorders. The series is co-written by Barry Barmann and his wife, Mary. Click here to read part one.
When addressing the question regarding the degree to which women think, we are referring specifically to how women think during times when they are experiencing emotions such as anxiety or depression.
Let’s first discuss the difference between worrying, deep thinking and overthinking.
Worrying is future oriented, often beginning with the words, ”what if.” For example, “What if I can’t cope with the pressure of my new job”? Those who worry overestimate the probability of bad outcomes and underestimate their ability to handle these outcomes.
The deep thinker, on the other hand, will dive into a problem-solving mode by generating many possible solutions, followed by constructing an inordinate number of pros and cons for each solution.
Overthinking shares characteristics similar to worrying and deep thinking; however, the overthinker focuses thoughts primarily on negative events that have occurred in the past, and concludes that their own actions were responsible for these outcomes.
A common consequence for overthinking feelings of anxiety and depression is the tendency to see what our negative mood wants us to see. When overthinking our emotional distress, pathways in our brain are triggered and become focused solely on past negative life events.
Once the memory of one negative event surfaces, another is triggered, and then another. We begin thinking about the job we hate, followed by the thought of how little money we have, which causes us to think about why we live with four roommates and have no alone time.
Overthinking negative memories also results in highly distorted interpretations of reality, causing us to make bad decisions regarding our future.
When women think too much about being sad or anxious, the tendency is to continue to remember many life events that represented failure, social embarrassment, abandonment, and other dark memories.
This form of overthinking leads one to predict present and future negative outcomes, creating self-doubt and a feeling of being “stuck” — thus triggering a loss of hope.
In fact, overthinking consistently results in maintaining emotional distress, and soon becomes the problem, as opposed to the solution. Overthinking can lead to emotional distress in both men and women.
So, what are the factors that predispose women to be more vulnerable than men concerning the tendency to think too much when feeling sad or anxious?
Negative life events, locus of control
Studies published by Boston University have shown that females experience more traumatic events than do males, beginning at a very young age.
One trauma that women suffer much more often than men is sexual abuse such as rape and incest. It is not unusual for victims of sexual abuse to spend a great deal of time thinking about why they suffered a trauma of this nature.
Thoughts such as, “why did this happen to me”? and “could I have somehow prevented the abuse from occurring”? are often asked by victims of such horrific events.
Research also shows that women are twice as likely than men to live in poverty, placing them at risk for additional stressors such as exposure to crime, violence, inadequate housing and illness.
Sexual abuse and poverty among women are factors that have been highly correlated as predictors for overthinking. Traumas of this nature also result in creating self-doubt with respect to one’s ability to control future negative life events.
The tendency to attribute bad outcomes to one’s own actions, while explaining successes to factors outside of oneself (e.g., luck, simplicity of the task, etc.) becomes the default manner of thinking for those who have suffered major traumas.
Women are significantly more likely than men to state that emotions such as anxiety and depression are uncontrollable, and should be deeply contemplated, not acted upon.
In an earlier article, we discussed the concept of tend and befriend, as related to a woman’s tendency to attend to a friend’s emotional needs in favor of her own.
Women place a great deal of importance on the relationships they have with girlfriends, family, careers, etc. Unfortunately, the more relationships, the more there is to think about.
Although women are affected by their own direct experience with trauma, they appear to be more deeply affected by a friend or family member’s traumatic events.
When friends are dealing with a major life stressor, women (more so than men) are prone to feel another’s emotional pain.
Women are also more likely than men to cross the line between being emotionally connected with others, and being emotionally over involved with their relationships.
This over involvement with how meaningful relationships are going typically results in feelings of anxiety when relationship changes occur, and oftentimes sets the stage for overthinking.
Since “relationship anxiety” is a major trigger for overthinking in women, we will focus solely on this issue in our next column.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. They own the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry in Incline Village. Barry may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatmentincline village.com to learn more.