How Does Anxiety Differ for Women and Men?
When it comes to mental health disorders such as anxiety, there are differences between the genders, even at early ages.
Anxiety is characterized by worried thoughts, physiological tension, and cognitive defects. Persistent and unproductive anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the U.S. Anxiety disorders affect women at twice the rate they affect men.
Anxiety is associated with developing depressive symptoms, especially in females. For example, a study of middle school girls and boys assessed depressive symptoms, total anxiety, and three individual dimensions of anxiety: worry and oversensitivity; physiological anxiety; and social concerns and concentration.
Oversensitivity, worry, and total anxiety predicted later depressive symptoms more strongly for girls than for boys; physiological anxiety predicted later depression for both girls and boys. Results of this and earlier studies suggest anxiety precedes the onset of depression but not the other way around.
Children typically show anxiety symptoms earlier than they show depression symptoms. However, by around age 13, girls are two times more likely to have clinical depression and high levels of depressive symptoms. This tends to continue into adulthood. Girls are more likely to worry and be anxious in childhood, and in adulthood, anxiety and depression are more likely to co-occur in women.
Another study of more than 7,000 individuals ranging from 6 to 100 years old also found a small but significant relationship between anxiety and gender (and anxiety and age). Females in this study also scored higher than males on anxiety measures.
In addition to psychosocial difficulties, anxiety negatively affects performance, especially in women. In one study, for example, women who worried a lot had more activity in the anterior cingulated cortex, the area of the brain where we monitor our own performance. Anxiety negatively affected women's performance on tasks, particularly as the difficulty of their tasks increased.
High levels of anxiety in women are not unique to the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual and domestic violence, and substance abuse affect women more than men across different countries and different settings. The WHO attributes the differences to many factors, including pressures created by women's multiple roles, gender discrimination, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork, domestic violence, and sexual abuse—which account for women's poor mental health.
We need additional research before we can fully understand what's behind anxiety and gender. In the meantime, mental health experts need to address gender in anxiety prevention and intervention programs.
Moran, Tim P., Taylor, Danielle, and Moser, Jason S. "Sex moderates the relationship between worry and performance monitoring brain activity in undergraduates." International Journal of Psychophysiology 2012. Web.
American Psychological Association. "Gender and Stress." Web.
Chaplin, Tara M., University of Pennsylvania
Gillham, Jane E., and University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College
Seligman, Martin E. P. "Gender, Anxiety, and Depressive Symptoms A Longitudinal Study of Early Adolescents." Journal of Early Adolescence 29(2) (2009): 307-327. Web. 1 April 2009. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2743326/
Lowe, Patricia A. "Does a Relationship Exist Between Gender and Anxiety Across the Life Span?" Presented at annual meeting of National Association of School Psychologists. Web. 11 April 2003.
World Health Organization. "Gender and women's mental health." Web. http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/
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