For those who struggle with anxiety, the feelings can be indescribable. Only someone who's experienced it can truly understand the depths of its relentless grip. It starts out as something you think you can control, but as time goes on this all-encompassing worry takes over and consumes every part of your body.
It can leave you feeling like you're broken, desperately trying to hide it and presenting only the “perfect” parts of life. This can be especially true for women, who are often expected to be all smiles and happiness.
But the truth is, if you're suffering from anxiety, you're not alone. And you're not broken beyond repair.
Why Women Are More Prone to Anxiety
The fact is that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million American adults 18 and older (about 18 percent of the population). What’s even more startling is that women are almost twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men, according to a 2016 review conducted by the University of Cambridge.
So are women born anxious, or are we raised to be that way? Olivia Remes, Ph.D., researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the review, says the drastic difference between genders might be a result of brain chemistry, hormonal fluctuations, genes and how men and women tend to cope with stress differently.
Makes sense, right? After all, many women will tell you that hormones impact several areas of their lives — and at different stages. Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., clinical director and owner of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, explains that once girls reach puberty and then again during times of hormonal fluctuations (like pregnancy, postpartum and menopause) their risk for experiencing significant anxiety increases.
And, of course, there is the issue of how women and men deal with stress. “When women are faced with a challenging situation, they are more likely to internalize its effects and develop anxiety and depression, while men are more likely to externalize a stressor’s effects,” Remes says.
Remes and Cassiday both suggest social roles may be another aspect to consider. These factors can include not being considered equal to men, being more likely to work part-time or to be a single parent and being more at risk for negative stereotyping and poverty. All of this can create a burden for women and increase the amount of anxiety they experience
How to Identify an Anxiety Disorder
So how do you know if what you’re experiencing is anxiety? Typically, the first thing you’ll notice is that you feel afraid in situations you once felt were manageable. “You get caught by surprise, and then you begin to dread certain situations, places, thoughts or sensations,” says Cassiday.
Other signs to look for in yourself (or others) include frequently being late or canceling at the last minute due to worry, panic attacks or compulsions; getting inadequate rest because the excessive worrying is keeping you awake; and looking for reassurance from others by regularly asking for advice about worries and fears.
If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, Cassiday says one of the most obvious things you’ll notice is that she stops being able to do things that others typically find easy to do and offers elaborate excuses that seem to (at least on the surface) make sense.
She explains that people often try to hide the real reason behind their anxious avoidance by making semi-plausible excuses like, “I like to walk the stairs to get my exercise,” when faced with riding an elevator that causes claustrophobia. Or “I have to catch up on work,” rather than joining co-workers for dinner when socializing causes social anxiety.
The Importance of Seeking Help
After years of living with mental health issues, many women began to view this high level of anxiety as part of their personality or something they just need to deal with (which consequently decreases the urgency to seek help). The shame that comes from feeling trapped by your thoughts makes you feel utterly out of control and leads to isolation and a belief that surely no one else thinks and feels like me.
But that’s not the case.
Normalizing therapy is one of the first steps toward letting go of this shame. After all, most people would not hesitate to get treatment for physical pain that doesn’t go away, so why don’t we place the same importance on mental and emotional well-being?
Addressing anxiety disorders early can help prevent disability and even death from untreated or partially treated mental health problems.
“We live in an age in which there are many treatments that work well to alleviate anxiety disorders, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness therapy and medication,” says Cassiday.
Talk to Your Doctor About Your Symptoms
Opening up to your health care provider can be terrifying. However, once you understand that effective treatment is available, giving a voice to your struggles is the first step toward living a healthier life.
Cassiday says that doctors need to hear more details other than the fact that you feel anxious, phobic or worried. “They need you to describe the thoughts that go through your mind when you are anxious and the physical symptoms that you feel in your body when you get anxious,” she says. “You also need to describe the things that your anxiety makes you dread and the things your anxiety prevents you from doing.”
She also stresses the importance of telling your doctor about any coping strategies you are currently using in order to alleviate anxiety, such as seeking reassurance, doing rituals and avoiding anxiety-inducing situations.