My dear fellow females, I'm sorry to inform you of this, but . . .
You are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder in your lifetime as men.
This is probably no surprise to you, and if you've dealt with anxiety before, just reading about your predisposition to it might make you feel, well, anxious. I've had several episodes of intermittent and (ugh) persistent anxiety, and the symptoms you experience are formidable. I'd rather have the flu for a month than experience anxiety for a week.
Everyone feels anxious from time to time — waiting for test results, prior to a big speech, or interviewing for a job. But this post is about anxiety gone rogue — anxiety that knocks you flat on your butt and makes you want to jump out of your own skin. This is the foot-shaking, sweat producing, breath stealing miscreant who reduces you to a shadow of your pre-anxiety self.
The grand schemer who constructed the female psyche must have been in a foul mood the day he (it couldn't have been a she!) decided to dish out a bigger dose of anxiety disorders to women. Isn't it enough we have to push out babies and have periods? No matter how unfair the imbalance, it's a sad fact that millions of women deal with some form of anxiety every day. That's too much unnecessary suffering.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health problem in the United States — more so than depression. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are some legitimate reasons why women carry the anxiety load:
- Lifestyle. Women as a general population are more likely than men to live in poverty, be subject to discrimination, and be sexually and physically abused.
- Hormones. Compared to men, women experience much more fluctuation in hormone levels associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Numerous studies confirm that anxiety often begins during periods of significant hormonal change, including the prime ages of pregnancy and during menopause.
- Thinking habits. Women are significantly more inclined to have negative emotions, engage in self-criticism, and ruminate about problems.
- Learned behavior. As children, girls who are shy or anxious are more often reinforced for these behaviors. Little boys who are shy and anxious might be shamed and punished for them. It appears girls are socially conditioned to be more passive, internalizing their stress and fears.
The reasons why you are anxious may provide useful insight and reduce secondary anxiety — the anxiety you have about being anxious. But the more valuable effort is unraveling the symptoms and triggers and learning exactly what you're dealing with related to your particular anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders come in a variety of flavors, each with an array of symptoms that make life feel scary and exhausting.
Let's stare down some the anxiety symptoms in women so you can learn how to manage anxiety, or better yet, even cure it.
Panic Disorder and Panic Attacks
Panic disorder basically means you have regular panic attacks, and in between the attacks you feel panicky that one will happen again. You're either having an attack or afraid of having one. That's a terrible way to live.
A panic attack is fear that is out of control and out of proportion to the situation. The attacks come on suddenly and unexpectedly, and they are truly terrifying. You think you are going to die, until you get to the point that you hope you do because you can't bear the feelings for one second longer.
They generally peak at about 10 minutes and last about 20-30 minutes, but those minutes feel like decades. Panic attacks can happen anywhere, from driving in your car to picking up your groceries.
That's one reason they are so scary — the fear of losing control in places where you shouldn't lose control. Often people will just avoid public places because of their anticipatory fear of an attack.
The symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Racing heart
- Chest pain, feeling like you're having a heart attack
- Feelings of complete terror, impending doom or death that are paralyzing
- Feeling sweaty or having chills
- Feeling out of control or like you're going crazy
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Feeling detached from your surroundings
- Experiencing nausea or upset stomach
- Having numbness or tingling sensations
- Feeling like you're choking
Once you recognize that you are having a panic attack and that you are not in fact dying or going crazy, you immediately reduce some of the intensity of the attack.
It may still feel awful, but at least you know what you're dealing with. But you'd much rather not deal with the attacks at all, and that's why treatment for panic disorder is so important. Why live a compromised life if you don't have to?
Some specific situations trigger panic attacks, especially those where you might hold intense, but irrational fear — like flying in an airplane or getting trapped on an elevator. But even these phobia related attacks are treatable.
Between 70 to 90 percent of people with panic disorder find significant relief with treatment, and early treatment can prevent the disease from progressing to the later stages where agoraphobia (fear of places and situations that might cause panic) develops.
Proven successful treatment for panic disorder can include:
- Short-term use of anti-anxiety medication
- Treatment with antidepressants
- A combination of all of the above
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is the feeling of overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social or performance situations. You're terrified of being judged or humiliated, or doing something that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
Even if you know the fear is excessive and unreasonable, you feel powerless against the anxiety. The anxiety disrupts your daily routines, job performance, and your social life. In fact, social anxiety can make you feel so uncomfortable that you may have very few social or romantic relationships.
The symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:
- Intense fear of interacting or talking with strangers
- Fear that others will notice your anxiety or discomfort
- Avoiding normal social situations or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment
- Having anxiety in anticipation of a feared activity or event
- Spending time after a social situation rehashing your performance and picking apart your social flaws
- Expecting the worst possible consequences from a bad social experience
- Physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, upset stomach, muscle tension, dizziness, and breathlessness
- Fear of these physical symptoms occurring
If you suffer with social anxiety, it can feel lonely and isolating. You long for easy, relaxed relationships, but you find it excruciating to endure the interactions. The good news is that psychotherapy is highly effective in treating social anxiety disorder.
If you've gotten to the point of avoiding social situations or feeling extreme discomfort with them, you need a trained pro to help you work through the emotions and learn new behaviors. Self-help alone won't do the trick.
Treatment options for social anxiety include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Medications including beta blocks, anti-anxiety meds, and antidepressants
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
This is the bad boy I've experienced in the past, and it can bring your life to a slow and joyless halt. With generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you feel anxious about life. You worry excessively about various and sundry things that have no foundation in reality.
Worry is just your constant state of being. You feel hypervigilant, waiting for disaster around the corner when there's no evidence even minor disruptions await you.
You can worry about almost anything — from your health to the state of the economy. One small thought or interaction can trigger a cycle of anxiety, and even though you may know intellectually you have nothing to fear, you can't get off of the worry wheel.
GAD is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months and exhibits 3 or more symptoms.
The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Feeling restless, keyed up or on edge much of the time
- Becoming easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Feeling irritable and frustrated
- Experiencing muscle tension, physical pains, stomach or intestinal disturbances
- Having difficulty falling or staying asleep, or having restless, unsatisfying sleep
All of these anxiety disorders are debilitating, but the unrelenting nature of GAD makes it especially frustrating. When you're simmering in a stew of anxiety all day, without the relief of restful sleep or a peaceful break, you can easily sink into depression.
The symptoms of GAD may not be as dramatic as a panic attack, but they are insidious and can deceive you into accepting them without taking action.
If you suffer with GAD, don't allow it to linger on like an unwanted guest. It robs you of the vitality and sparkle of life. It drains the color out of your very existence. Fight against this thief tooth and nail and seek treatment even if “it's not that bad.” It can get worse.
Treatment options for GAD include:
- Ruling out medical conditions or medications that can cause anxiety
- Cognitive behavior therapy
- Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants
- Stress management techniques like visualization and meditation
- Regular exercise
- Cutting out caffeine and cutting back on alcohol
My experience with anxiety had me wondering if I was going crazy, running from doctor to doctor hoping to find a logical physical cause or hormonal fix.
It was hard to accept that my psyche was betraying me and my own thoughts were the cause of my suffering. Accepting that I couldn't control or change my anxiety symptoms through willpower or reasoning made it all the more insufferable.
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Fortunately, I was determined to reclaim my life and take action against my anxiety. I still have occasional bouts of anxious feelings, but now I know why I have them and what to do about them.
Anxiety, in whatever form it rears its ugly head, is nothing to take lightly. As a woman, you have life and work responsibilities that demand a calm and confident state of mind. You also have a beautiful world around you to experience and savor without the black shroud of anxiety smothering your joy.
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, but only about a third of those suffering receive treatment. No matter how anxious you might feel right now, use your inner core of strength and determination to pull yourself out of the darkness and into the light.
Go to your doctor, explain your symptoms without shame or embarrassment, and get treated. Your life is waiting for you.