Got anxiety? Do women worry more than men?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the first 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.
There’s no such thing as a worry-free life. Everyone experiences anxiety throughout life, but did you know that women are more than twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder?
This is particularly true with Generalized Anxiety, Panic Disorder, and Phobias. In part one of this three-part series, let’s examine the primary factors that appear to predispose females to be more vulnerable than males regarding the onset and prevalence of chronic worry.
While presenting a community seminar last month about the nature of worry and anxiety, someone asked, “Is anxiety a female disorder”?
Our answer: “Girls don’t start out more anxious than boys, but they usually end up that way.”
Although countless research has shown that the incidence of anxiety disorders is disproportionally greater for females, it’s helpful to understand the interplay of factors that may be responsible for this outcome.
“Negative Affect” is a term that refers to a person’s tendency to feel unpleasant feelings.
Some people experience negative emotions (worry, anxiety, sadness) more intensely than others. They do not simply feel sad — they experience depression. When feeling on edge, they experience severe anxiety.
Biological research indicates that females appear more inclined toward possessing the negative affect trait to a significantly greater degree than do males, making women more prone to experience negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.
Statistics support that females greatly outnumber males with respect to the incidence of clinical depression. This biological vulnerability may also explain why females display an early onset of anxiety and depression, typically as young as 5 years of age.
Once these emotional states surface, some women have a tendency to misinterpret their meaning by focusing on what is occurring in their immediate environment, in order to give these emotions personal significance.
Consequently, women become keenly aware of others’ facial expressions, which they use to help formulate interpretations of potential threat, as well as means for labeling their own emotional state.
This cognitive process may help to explain the greater number of females diagnosed with Social Anxiety, in comparison to males.
Little has changed over the years in parenting and socializing boys versus girls.
Parents, particularly moms, are more in touch with their son’s emotional needs and behaviors, than their daughter’s emotions.
Parents urge boys to show courage, take reasonable risks, assert their independence, and explore options.
Girls, alternatively, are encouraged to be cautious, communicate their worries, and are typically more protected from challenges — an overall avoidant response style designed to “protect” them from danger.
Behaving shyly or anxiously is accepted and often encouraged for girls, whereas boys are taught early on to “tough it out” in situations viewed as potentially threatening.
Even when these parenting styles are unintentional, they result in teaching boys to (a) acquire an internal locus of control, (b) seek out challenging endeavors across a variety of situations (academic, social, etc.), and (c) learn methods for effectively handling adversity.
Boys, then, tend to accumulate many successes early in life; experiences that may buffer them from future negative life events, often resulting in a greater sense of self-confidence, control, and perceived ability to handle negative outcomes.
A “bring it on” and “I can do this” attitude evolves much more so with boys than is typically seen in girls, who having most likely been more sheltered from life’s challenges, have learned fewer effective coping strategies than their male counterparts.
Tend and Befriend
In an earlier column, we discussed the evolutionary model about the early development of animal phobias, and the role of the “fight or flight” response associated with phobic responding.
Significant gender differences have been noted to exist when required to spontaneously react to a stressful life event.
Although males and females both experience a flight or fight response (rapid heart rate, immediate adrenaline release, etc.) when dealing with stress, females release certain hormones that act to buffer the intensity level of this physiological response.
This dampening effect, from an evolutionary perspective, served the function of helping a woman to remain present (rather than fight or flee) in order to tend to her children and befriend others in need of help.
In today’s society, this tend & befriend response may serve to inadvertently reinforce an anxious coping style in women when needing to respond to perceived threat.
Alternatively, a male’s genetic fight/flight response style, which is void of the tend/befriend factor, may instead result in the opportunity to learn several strategies for handling threat, resulting in a greater sense of mastery and control in the face of danger.
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 anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.
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