Anxiety is a much more common problem for women than it is for men. While this may be due in part to cultural and societal traditions and expectations, it is also due to the chemicals that make up our bodies and the myriad of physical changes that occur in women’s bodies and not in men’s.
This article will cover the primary causes of anxiety in women, as well as what women can do to minimize anxiety in their lives.
Chemical Imbalances That Cause Anxiety
There may be biological reasons that women may be more prone to anxiety than men. However, it should be noted that even though anxiety may be partially biological, there is evidence that it can be changed and altered with the right anxiety reduction techniques.
Our bodies produce natural chemicals known as “neurotransmitters.” Neurotransmitters come in two general types: they can be either the “inhibitory” type, which promotes happiness and calm, or the “excitatory” type, which promotes (as you may have guessed) excitement, fear reactions, and stress.
Serotonin is an example of the inhibitory type of neurotransmitter, and it plays a role in proper mood and stress coping. Some studies have shown that men naturally have higher levels of serotonin in their bodies than women do. It has been hypothesized that the lower levels of serotonin in women’s bodies make them more alert and aware of environmental changes (whether physical or emotional), allowing them to avoid immediate and also potential physical threats. On the other hand, the higher levels of serotonin in men allow them to conserve their physical and emotional energy for reacting combatively to evident physical threats. Regardless, the end result could be anxiety as a result of low levels of serotonin. This hasn't necessarily been confirmed in research, but it is a fascinating theory.
Adrenaline and epinephrine are also two examples of the excitatory type of neurotransmitter. If these neurotransmitters are regularly triggered over an extended period, they can change the physical structure of the brain by causing it to create more receptors for the excess excitatory neurotransmitters and decrease its serotonin and dopamine (or “happy chemical”) receptors because it doesn’t have as many of them to process. This type of chemical imbalance causes the oversensitivity to environmental and emotional stimuli that is the main characteristic of anxiety.
So both of these may lead to the development of anxiety. However, it should also be noted you’re your body is affected by your mind and your experiences as well. Long term issues may result in changes to your chemical balance, thus creating more anxiety. Possible causes of chemical imbalances in women include:
- Work-Related Stress While a common cause of stress for anyone, a woman’s workplace stress is more likely than a man’s to include harassment and discrimination. Sexual harassment in the workplace can be difficult to combat despite the fact that it is illegal due to concerns regarding public embarrassment, or threats of being fired from the job. Discrimination is similarly stressful and hard to combat, as it can be subtle and usually easy for the perpetrators to disguise or deny.
- Domestic Responsibility Overload Women are often expected to do the work of two or more people in a household. Many men have been culturally trained or brought up to expect that women are primarily responsible for performing domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning and tending to children. This can be especially stressful when a woman is also working outside of the home.
- Sexist Attitudes from Family or Significant Others Apart from being assigned extra domestic responsibilities, women are also often put under pressure from loved ones to behave in certain ways and pursue certain goals (such as getting married, having children, or working towards jobs they deem “appropriate” for a woman rather than others, which could mean lower paying work that doesn’t intimidate a spouse, or a more “conservative” or “feminine” job than she wants to do). This type of pressure from people that a woman has emotional connections to is often highly stressful for her, because maintaining positive relations with family and significant others is a source of stability and happiness that is being threatened.
Note that while these are often about male attitudes towards women and what it's like to be a woman in today's society, that doesn't mean that anxiety cannot also be the result of day to day stresses. In fact, it's entirely possible that women may experience more stress from things like:
- Stressful friendships and trouble relating to others.
- Monthly hormonal changes and diet.
- Self-esteem and more.
The truth is that any long term stress of any kind may lead to the development of anxiety, and women – for reasons that aren't always clear – appear to be more prone to some of these stressors. Also, both men and women are often subjected to environments that can create anxiety, so your own anxiety may be unrelated to gender altogether.
Stress and the Female Fight or Flight Response
Another theory has to do with the female reaction in the fight or flight response. During the fight or flight response, “excitatory” chemicals are produced in response to stress as part of the fight or flight response wired into al humans. However, it works slightly differently in women than it does in men, further predisposing women to anxiety.
Fight or flight in both men and women begins in a region of the brain known as the amygdala, or amygdalae, a pair of almond-shaped neuron clusters near the brain’s base that regulate the storage of long-term memories of events based on the strength of the emotional reactions that accompanied them.
In men, the right amygdala is more responsive to stress and is associated with taking action. In women, as well as in people who suffer from anxiety and depression, the left side is more responsive and is associated more with thought and the recollection of details. Women, therefore, are more likely to dwell on stressful stimuli and vividly remember the details of stressful events in their lives than men.
Hormonal Imbalances that Cause Stress
Over the course of a woman’s life, she will find that her hormones are thrown off balance fairly often, with physical and emotional side effects of varying degrees of severity.
Hormonal imbalances have many symptoms which cause stress in and of themselves (such as irregular hair growth patterns, cramps, hot flashes and difficulty sleeping). When these symptoms persist, they (like any other persistent and stressful aspect of life) can result in the types of chemical imbalances that lead to anxiety disorders.
The endocrine gland, where hormones are produced, is affected by a variety of events in a woman’s life. Most of these events result in an increase in estrogen production, except menopause which decreases the levels of both sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in the body. The natural causes of hormone imbalances in a woman’s life include:
- The menstrual cycle
- Thyroid dysfunction
In addition to natural causes, women are also more threatened by various unnatural substances that can cause hormonal malfunctions (though they can be dangerous for both men and women). Unnatural causes of hormonal imbalances in women include:
- Birth control pills
- Overuse of cosmetics
- Consumption of non-organic animal products
With all of these different issues, it may seem like anxiety for women is unavoidable. However, there are ways to prevent worsening both hormonal and chemical imbalances and to avoid some causes of chemical imbalances entirely.
Ways to Stay Chemically and Hormonally Balanced
Hormonal differences between men and women are harder to control. If your hormones are wildly out of balance, you may need to talk to your doctor. Interestingly, a big part of reducing your anxiety simply comes from reducing some of your stress. So if you are feeling a little off-balance, these tips may help you restore your mind and body to their former selves by minimizing the levels of anxiety and stress you encounter on a daily basis.
- Share Chores Don’t do everything yourself. Some women internalize the idea that any extra work around the house is their responsibility after a long day of work. It is important to acknowledge your own need for rest and to respectfully and patiently explain to the people sharing your living space that in the interest of fairness, the extra work needs to be divided equally (and will get done much faster that way).
- Keep Controlling People Out of Your Life If you are not able to live peaceably due to pressure from your significant other or a family member, it is important to protect yourself by respectfully explaining that you need your space and your autonomy. If talking to them about it is too stressful for you, it is your responsibility to ask for help, either from another family member, a counselor, or social worker.
- Be True to Yourself Conforming to another person’s idea of how or who you should be can be damaging to your self-confidence and can distance you from other people, who would otherwise provide emotional support. Avoid the people who might be negatively provoked by your choices and cause further stress, or, if this is impossible, request an intervention by people you know and trust, or by a professional.
- Get Enough Sleep Not sleeping, or sleeping irregularly, can make any symptoms of anxiety you already have even worse. Anxiety takes a physical and mental toll on your energy levels while you are awake, which makes it especially important for you to take as much time to sleep and recharge as you can. To do this, try setting a regular time to be in bed by to help train your brain to shut down for sleep when you want it to. Also, eat light dinners so that digestion doesn’t interrupt your sleep, and avoid caffeinated beverages such as soda in the evenings.
- Eat a Balanced Diet- Your diet can have a big impact on how you feel emotionally and physically, particularly when you are experiencing anxiety on a regular basis. As already mentioned, anxiety is a drain on your energy stores, which need to be replenished by the nutrients in food to avoid a physical or emotional collapse.
- Talk to Someone Whether it’s a close friend, a family member you trust, or a counselor or therapist, it is good to get your thoughts and feelings out in the open. Talking about the anxiety you feel may help you to understand problems that seem to complex to handle, and getting feedback from others can help you figure out how to deal with it in healthy ways rather than letting it spiral into disorders and depression.
Keeping your life in balance isn’t easy for anyone, but women especially have a lot of stress to deal with, whether it’s due to mental predisposition, natural life events, unnatural substances designed for female use or societal pressure. If you’re a woman, surrounding yourself with people who will treat you with kindness and respect and treating yourself the same way are the best things you can do to keep your anxiety under your control. You can then follow those up with exercises that improve mental health, and you'll be able to battle your anxiety away.