If your daily routine moves in a blur from rushed morning preparation to a full workday of meetings to transporting kids to getting dinner ready to bedtime routine – only to be repeated the next day – then you’re likely no stranger to stress or anxiety.
Yet for some women, anxiety is more than a hectic day. It’s a debilitating disorder that can affect relationships, work and your ability to function. And new research shows such disorders affect women twice as much as men. A review of 48 studies in the journal Brain and Behavior studied the prevalence of anxiety disorders and found that women, people under 35 and people with chronic diseases are among the groups more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders.
“I think we all worry and we all get stressed,” says Phil Stone, a Denver-based mental health expert who works at West Pines Behavioral Health, which treats people with psychiatric and addiction concerns. “When you are struggling with an anxiety disorder it goes beyond that and it’s impairing your ability to function, impairing your ability to go to work and be as productive as possible, or go out in the community and interact with others, and impairing your relationships.”
Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety and social anxiety disorder. The study found that between five and nine percent of women suffer from an anxiety disorder.
No one knows exactly why women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than men.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America(ADAA), brain chemistry may play a role. The fight-or-flight response is activated more quickly in women and remains activated for longer than in men. The ADAA also says some research suggests women are more sensitive to low levels of corticotropin-releasing factor, a hormone that organizes stress response. This sensitivity makes women more vulnerable to stress disorders.
Stone notes that within a family unit, women have traditionally been in the position of worrying for everyone—about getting the kids to school and other activities, the health of family members, household tasks and more. He notes that this dynamic is changing, and he is seeing more men seeking therapy and reporting high levels of anxiety.
Stone has another explanation for the results based on traditional gender roles.
“This is more narrative than documented by research, but generally speaking we see men in our society more shut down and less willing to share what they are feeling inside,” he says, while noting this trend is also changing. “Women are more likely to open up and share their feelings and worries. This research is really interesting, and I really think one of the big things is women are more likely to report anxiety and that’s why you’re seeing twice as many women.”
Whatever the reasons, for women suffering from such disorders the real question is what to do.
Here are six basic ways women can help keep anxiety under control:
- Get enough sleep
- Eat well
- Exercise regularly
- Practice mindfulness or meditation
- Don’t overschedule stressful tasks and activities, and schedule downtime
- Make fun a priority
“Start with the basics: eat well, sleep well and exercise,” says Stone. “Start some kind of meditation program each day even if it’s as simple as listening to the wind blow for five minutes.”
Stone says to consult with your primary care physician or a therapist to form an individual plan, but other tactics include using caffeine in moderation, guided meditation, individual or group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and discussing possible medication options with your prescriber.
Mindfulness is a buzzword of the moment, but it has been around for thousands of years and is based on focusing on the here and now.
“I personally find that some light music, low lighting, deep breathing and focusing on the breath really does calm you down and help you focus,” says Stone.
And finally, don’t forget some purposeful, fun hobbies.
“I’m amazed when I interview new clients and ask them what they do for fun and they say, ‘Nothing,’” says Stone. “I say, ‘What did you used to do?’ and they will say, ‘I used to go hiking or ride my mountain bike or golf or swim with my kids.’ Get back to fun activities.”
Even though many of us live in an overstimulated society, the recent research found that rates of anxiety disorders remained steady from 1990 to 2010, and they don’t have to be permanent.
“I think the most important thing to know is it’s common, you’re not alone, and please get help,” says Stone. “It’s very treatable, especially with some behavioral changes and therapy approaches. There is hope.”