Women's Health Matters

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Risk factors

All these findings highlight women’s higher rates of anxiety. But why are rates higher for women? There has been a lot of work investigating these differences. It is unlikely any one risk factor is responsible for the increased risk of anxiety disorders in women. Rather, it is likely a combination of factors, including a biological predisposition and socio-cultural and psychological factors.

Biological factors

  • Genetic – Women with a history of anxiety disorders in their family are at an increased risk for developing anxiety.
  • Hormonal – The perinatal period is a time of increased vulnerability for anxiety disorders. The significant hormonal changes in women during pregnancy are related to an increase in anxiety.

Socio-cultural factors

  • The role of fear – Men and women are socialized to respond to their own feelings differently from each other. As a generalization, women are socialized that it is okay to express fear; whereas men are taught to not show fear. Consequently, women are reinforced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for expressing fear, while men are deterred from doing so. Anxiety and fear are inconsistent with maleness; whereas they are at the very least tolerated, if not a part of, being female. Moreover, girls and women are allowed to withdraw from what they fear, while boys and men are taught to approach it. Being forced to approach might actually lead to the development of coping skills to manage fear.
  • Caregiving of boys and girls – In general, caregivers tend to be more protective of girls, while allowing boys the opportunity to explore. This exploration provides boys with chances to exert control over their environment and be forced to face and overcome some of their fears.

Psychological factors

  • Problem-solving approach – Women tend to use emotion-focused problem-solving (for example, positive reframe or denial). These methods are less effective for reducing distress associated with anxiety.
  • Appraisal of events
    • women are more likely to experience an event as unpredictable, uncontrollable or overwhelming
    • women tend to overestimate the potential for danger
    • women expect harm and predict they will not cope well
  • Perinatal changes – Pregnancy and motherhood are times of significant stress and change and increase a woman’s risk for anxiety.

We know that psychological factors, such as our thoughts, emotions and how we respond to events in life, are shaped by our genetics, socialization and past experiences. These risk factors (biological, socio-cultural and psychological) often act together. For example, if a woman has a genetic predisposition to anxiety and then grows up in an overprotective environment, she is more likely to develop anxiety. Furthermore, if as a young girl her caregivers are overprotective in such a way that they prevent her from developing skills for managing stress and fear, she may feel ill-equipped to handle perceived threats as an adult. And, most unfortunately, women experience significant threat and violence throughout their lives, as they are often victims of interpersonal violence. So the threat leading to higher rates of worry and fear is very real in many women’s lives. 

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Women and anxiety

Risk factors

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