Studies consistently show that women seem to be more anxious than men. But what’s the real story? While there’s truth to that statement, the big picture isn’t so clear. Men tend to seek help less often than women. They also don't talk about it as often. And they may express and experience anxiety differently as well.
Anxiety in men has not been well studied. Much of what we know about anxiety may stem from a bias toward women. But as research expands, we learn more about how anxiety affects both genders. Here's what we know right now about triggers, symptoms, and other factors.
What triggers anxiety
Men and women are alike in many ways. But biological and social differences can impact the way a person sees their world. Here's how gender differences may affect what triggers a person's anxiety.
Women may experience more anxiety when a threat relates to life and survival. A rodent study looked at how rats reacted to stressful situations with food. Female rats appeared notably more stressed by these situations than males did. An animal study doesn't tell the whole story. But it can give clues about biological differences.
Another study revealed that women were startled more and had more panic symptoms when a threat felt unpredictable. Men seem less affected by these situations. And finally, a recent study looked at how men and women coped with anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic. Women tended to worry about health issues and loved ones. Men were more concerned with society and the economy.
Biological and symptom differences
Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety in their lifetime as men. Are women really more anxious? Or are women diagnosed more because they’re more likely to report symptoms?
It's most likely both. A 2019 CDC survey shows that women are more likely to experience and report anxiety symptoms when asked. As noted earlier, there's a significant research gap regarding men and anxiety. And gender bias is being exposed and discussed more openly in many areas of study. But there are some biological differences that studies have been revealing.
Studies suggest that hormones may affect how anxiety impacts men and women. The female hormonal cycle may make women more prone to anxiety disorders. This cycle may involve the hippocampus. It's one of several brain structures that regulate anxiety. It’s thought that the growth of new neurons in this area helps a person manage emotion.
The hormonal changes women experience can interfere with the growth of new neurons in this brain region. This process may make females more vulnerable to anxiety. But testosterone may have a protective effect on neural growth in men. Other brain structures, including the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, show gender differences as well.
According to the DSM-5, anxiety symptoms for men and women are similar. Panic attacks occur more often in women. And more women are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. But there seems to be little difference in how each gender experiences anxiety.
Coping with anxiety
Men and women vary more in how they cope with anxiety. Women are more likely to keep up their social connections. By sharing with others, they get support when difficult things happen. This may protect them against loneliness and depression. Despite this extra support, women seem to bear a greater burden with anxiety. It is more disabling and chronic for women than men.
By contrast, men are more likely to cope with substances. Men will smoke, drink, and use drugs to cope with anxiety symptoms more often than women. Men are also less likely to seek help. However, when they do talk with others about their anxiety, they tend to choose women. Women tend to be better at communicating about mental health issues. Men see them as more understanding and skilled at talking about emotions. When they want to talk, men choose long-term partners most often.
Anxiety with other disorders
Anxiety is diagnosed more often than any other Mental Health disorder in the United States. It affects over 40 million adults a year. Anxiety also occurs with many other physical and mental health disorders. Here are a few examples.
● Men are most likely to have substance use problems and smoke to deal with anxiety symptoms.
● Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or another anxiety-based disorder.
Mental health and chronic illness are also closely tied. A person with a chronic health issue has twice the risk of developing depression or anxiety than the general population. It's no surprise, given the ongoing stress of coping with a chronic condition.
Research has started to look at how both genders express anxiety differently. One study looked at what made people anxious about their epilepsy. Women were more worried about the experience of epileptic seizures. And men were more concerned with social factors and their quality of life.
A cookie-cutter approach won't work for everyone, especially when other conditions are involved. Men and women may need different types of coping strategies. Recognizing these differences can make treatment more effective.
Both men and women struggle with anxiety. But research shows that gender can make a difference. Hormones, biological factors, and triggers can affect how anxiety disorders impact men and women.
Perceptions matter when it comes to mental health. Many people who need treatment hesitate to get help for their symptoms. Women's anxiety is often more recognized, making it seem that women are more anxious than men. But men do struggle with anxiety, often on their own.
Anxiety is treatable for both men and women. With more research on gender differences, public messaging and treatment can be better for everyone.