The number one mental health problem suffered by women today is excessive worry and anxiety. This is according to Dr Holly Hazlett-Stevens, author of ‘Women who worry too much.’
Women who worry too much
This is supported by figures reported by the Office for National Statistics, which indicate that one in ten people in the UK will experience anxiety and associated depression. Ireland is not safe from this modern malaise either. Debbie Van Tonder, clinical nurse specialist in anxiety disorders at St Patrick’s University, Dublin, told The Irish Times,
“Anxiety is increasing in Ireland and we are seeing far more anxiety disorders than we did three or four years ago.”
Indeed, the problem of excessive worrying is already so severe that increasing numbers of women are being diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Women with GAD experience excessive worrying on most days, which interferes with all areas of their life, from work to family.
Anxiety in women in the 21st century
To worry is to experience fear, apprehension, or anxiety, in the present moment about an imagined future event or circumstance. It’s a common human response to negative expectations about the future, and is therefore accepted as normal, especially in novel circumstances like a new job or moving house.
Generally, this is true. Worry is normal and can be healthy – that is, worry can be healthy in moderation and in the appropriate circumstances. Excessive worrying, which is when a person is in a persistently high state of emotional and physical arousal, can lead to extreme forms of anxiety that can be dangerous to our mental and physical health and well-being.
Not only do anxiety-related disorders affect women more than men, but many women never receive professional treatment. Often, they aren’t even aware that they are suffering from this debilitating yet controllable modern illness.
According to Marcell Pick, author of Are You Tired And Wired? more women than ever before suffer from high levels of anxiety-generated tension which goes largely undetected for months or years by medical and health care professionals.
Research conducted by New York Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Robert Leahy, revealed that the average length of time it takes for a woman to be diagnosed as an anxiety sufferer, from the moment the initial symptoms appear, can take an astounding nine to 12 years.
In the interim, most women don’t seek help but regard their symptoms as something that’s normal for a woman. It’s only when a host of physical and psychological symptoms compel women to seek professional help that a formal diagnosis of GAD emerges as the main reason behind a diverse array of complications and illness.
Why are women more anxious than men?
Looking for an overriding reason that explains women’s excessive worrying when compared with men is fruitless; there are too many factors involved, says health writer Stephanie Pappas. Social, cultural, environmental, physiological, psychological and even evolutionary considerations are all potential contributory factors. Here are some possible explanations for why women are more prone to anxiety than men:
- Genetics – women are genetically predisposed to have a wider emotional repertoire than men, and are therefore more aware of their feelings. This can increase the tendency to ruminate, says Counsellor Nancy Travers.
- Physiology – anxiety has physiological origins, and is especially related to hormonal imbalances and higher levels of reproductive hormones in women.
- Cultural pressure – western and westernised modern women are under excessive social pressure to look and be a certain way. Not only are they expected to hold down successful careers while being a dedicated mother and wife, but they are also expected to conform to an ever-changing ‘perfect female body.’ Body anxiety is in fact one of the biggest worries experienced by the modern woman.
- Modern lifestyles – although both women and men experience the pressures and ill-effects of modern lifestyles, the boundaries between private and working lives have become increasingly blurred for women. Many women still cook, clean, see to the children, work out, see friends, and stay in touch with extended family, all after a hard day at work.
The odds certainly seem against women when it comes to anxiety. Fortunately, however, there are some simple steps that the excessive worrier can take to combat high anxiety.
How to combat high anxiety
There are four key ways to combat high anxiety:
1. Mindful living
Dr Hazlett-Stevens suggests that women practice daily mindfulness exercises designed to stop them from dwelling on the future. Focusing on the future tends to invite anxiety, whereas living mindfully helps to keep you grounded and absorbed in the present moment.
This lifestyle and perspective change also includes learning to accept situations as they are without blame or criticism. This is instrumental in making life more meaningful and less anxiety-provoking. She also points out that it is important to learn to relax and go with the flow of life instead of resisting it through compulsive worrying
2. Regular exercise
Light but consistent exercise, about three to four times per week, does wonders for the mind and body. Besides helping with stress-relief, regular exercise enhances the body’s immune system and improves how it copes with anxiety. Women who exercise consistently find it also releases mental tension and wards off illness.
Studies report that both resistance exercise such as weights and aerobic exercise such as walking are particularly effective for targeting the primary symptoms of GAD, which are irritability, anxiety, and low energy levels. To top it off, the positive effects of exercise are felt relatively quickly.
3. Emotion work
Emotion work is about learning to better manage your emotions and feelings. As challenging as it might be, most women could benefit from unlearning old, habitual patterns of dealing with stress. Coping strategies that worked in the past by helping us to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings are often no longer useful.
It’s often the case that women need to learn new mental skills to get out of being trapped by anxiety, says Marcelle Pick. Self-help literature, support groups, or professional psychological help are all good places to start for those who don’t know how to tackle emotion work.
4. Relaxation techniques
Yoga, meditation, tai chi, hypnotherapy and a host of mind-body therapies are available to help us release stress and deal better with everyday anxiety. Regular deep-breathing exercises, massage, and listening to soothing music daily are especially effective for minimising GAD.
Yoga has been found to be so effective at reducing anxiety that it is being integrated into stress-reducing programmes designed for survivors of natural disasters. Most of these mind-body techniques can be done at home when it’s convenient.
Assuming the modern world is not going to get any easier for women in the near future, it is important that we equip ourselves with some effective tools to help us guard against excessive worry. At the same time, we need to be patient with ourselves when trying out these new techniques.
Mindful living and mind-body therapies such as yoga and meditation take practice and you need to give yourself the time and space to gradually integrate them into your life. It is not uncommon for women to use anxiety-reducing skills to further beat themselves up over difficulties in adopting these skills.
The last thing we want is for these skills to produce more anxiety, so be kind to yourself, give yourself time, and remind yourself of this mantra by Dr Susan Jeffers, best-selling author of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway: “One step at a time is enough for me.”
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