Why are women more anxious than men?
Do ever feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and your responsibilities only continue to rise? Do you feel a sense of impending doom, like your carefully built system could come crashing down any second? Do you have trouble sleeping and always feel behind, whether it’s with responsibilities at work or at home?
Signs you’re experiencing anxiety
Anxiety is common in people with serious chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, but it also frequently develops in young, healthy people. And once it develops, it can have many negative outcomes. Anxiety is serious and shouldn’t be overlooked. Oftentimes, people, particularly women, think anxiety is simply part of their personality and there’s nothing to do about it. But there is.
You might be experiencing high levels of anxiety if you:
•Fear and avoid potentially stressful situations, such as social gatherings.
•Feel nervous, restless, or tense for prolonged periods.
•Have a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom.
•Have trouble concentrating on or thinking about anything other than the present worry.
•Have ongoing stomach troubles, like nausea, inability to eat much, and stomach pain.
•Feel tired, lethargic, or weak.
Why women are more likely to experience anxiety
According to new studies, women in North America are almost twice as likely as men to experience anxiety. More research needs to be done, but this gender gap could be due to differences in brain chemistry and society’s gender expectations. Here are some factors that contribute to higher rates of anxiety in women:
•Menstruation can affect anxiety levels.
•Female hormones contribute to a more easily activated and longer-lasting fight-or-flight response.
•Research has shown that testosterone, a hormone more abundant in men, may help lessen anxiety.
•Women experience residual anxiety following sexual abuse or violence more often than men.
•Hormonal changes during pregnancy and post-partum can affect anxiety levels. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a type of anxiety disorder, typically affects about one in one hundred people. However, that doubles during pregnancy and after giving birth.
During the pandemic lockdowns, women were generally more affected by anxiety than men. According to new studies, 25% of women reported experiencing severe anxiety, while only 11% of men reported feeling the same way. Anxiety also translated into sleep issues: 52% of women reported trouble with sleep, while 32% of men had difficulty with sleep.
Before the pandemic, women already dealt with stress from additional work load, often balancing the responsibilities of a full-time job and the responsibilities of being the primary home caretaker: childcare and domestic work. The pandemic pushed women closer to the breaking point, with working from home, children in online classes, and even taking care of sick or elderly relatives. The parent taking on the majority of childcare at home, most often women, is more likely to experience significantly higher levels of anxiety and stress. And the pandemic only exacerbated this.
A study found that since the lockdowns, women who worked full-time and who had partners reported spending about 5.7 hours a day on childcare, whereas men in the same situation reported spending 4.6 hours on childcare a day. The uncertainty in every day life plus the uncertainty of the pandemic has increased anxiety in many people, particularly in women.
So, how can we alleviate some of this anxiety?
How to manage your anxiety
Finding healthy ways to cope with your stress or anxiety can help lower cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and regulate your body’s response to stress. As women, we need to learn to say “no” and to not overload our plates. But that’s for a different article. For now, you can learn how to manage your anxiety starting with these strategies:
1. Acknowledge your anxiety: Acknowledging and accepting your anxiety allows you to take steps in addressing it and improving your wellbeing, instead of fearing it and letting it ruin your day. Knowing there’s a biological impact can also make it easier to face.
2. Practice relaxation techniques: Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga have all been shown to relieve anxiety by lowering cortisol levels.
For example, a 2013 study on the effects of mindfulness meditation on 30 medical students published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand found a significant decrease in anxiety levels after the participants took part in mindfulness meditation.
Try deep breathing or mindfulness exercises next time you’re overwhelmed with anxiety. For example, try box-breathing:
•Breathe in while counting to four at an even pace;
•Hold your breath for four more seconds;
•Release your breath evenly for another four seconds.
•You can repeat these three steps until a state of calmness has returned.
3. Eat a healthy breakfast: Have you ever felt inexplicably anxious in the mornings? That’s the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and it’s normal! High levels of cortisol are related to increased stress and it’s common to experience high cortisol levels in the morning.
Studies show that high levels of cortisol can cause cravings for foods high in sugar and fat, which actually further increase cortisol levels. This creates a cycle that’s difficult to break.
In addition, low blood sugar, which is common in the mornings after not eating all night, can mimic symptoms of anxiety like sweating and negative feelings. This can perpetuate any morning anxiety you may experience.
To combat high cortisol levels and low blood sugar, and to break that cycle, try eating foods that contain magnesium. Magnesium has been shown to help reduce anxiety and it can be found in plenty of foods, like:
•Nuts such as almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts.
•Bran cereals and other whole grains, like whole grain toast and oatmeal.
•Bananas and avocados.
It feels good to eat healthy, not only physically, but mentally too!
4. Try exercising: Getting regular exercise helps to regulate your central nervous system and can help reduce anxiety. It isn’t necessary to exercise the moment you feel anxious (although it can help!). Exercising at any point in the day has been shown to lower your risk of anxiety.
A 2020 study found that exercises that incorporate mindfulness can be especially helpful in managing anxiety. To help relieve anxiety, try these exercises:
•Yoga: Focus on the movements and the breathing. This will interrupt your negative thoughts for the moment and can help reduce anxiety, calm your thoughts, and relax your body.
•Tai Chi: Similar to yoga, this martial art focuses on breathing and movement and can have the same benefits.
•Walking: Research has shown that walking increases the release of brain chemicals called endorphins that stimulate relaxation and improve mood. You don’t even have to walk at a fast pace for it to have stress-relieving benefits.
5. Get better sleep: Everyone should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night. However, that can be difficult for people with anxiety since stress, anxiety, and insomnia are closely linked – about 50% to 80% of people with mental health struggles have trouble sleeping.
Your body is more likely to produce the stress hormone, cortisol, when you don’t get enough sleep. In fact, many studies have shown higher levels of cortisol in people who experience sleep deprivation.
Establishing good sleep hygiene can help. You can try:
•Going to sleep and getting up at the same time each day.
•Avoiding screens and caffeine leading up to bedtime.
•Doing relaxing activities before bed, such as reading a book or taking a bath.
6. Follow a morning routine: Starting out your day right can help you better manage your anxiety throughout the day. Having a solid morning routine can help you get your day going smoothly and interrupt any negative thoughts. A routine can also help you feel in control, which can reduce anxiety.
Your routine should incorporate techniques that reduce anxiety, like the ones listed above. For example:
•Wake up and have breakfast: Start your day with a simple, nutritious meal. Try oatmeal with fruits and nuts, which contains plenty of magnesium.
•Exercise or practice mindfulness: Go for a 10-minute walk or meditate for five minutes and see the effects of regular exercise on your anxiety.
•Shower and listen to some tunes: Take a relaxing shower after your walk or meditation. Try listening to some calming music or your favourite tunes before, after, or during your shower.
•Get dressed: Whether you’re working or schooling from home or in-person, put on an outfit you feel confident in and ditch the sweatpants. Do your makeup if you feel like it. Get ready for your day with plenty of time to spare so you aren’t rushing and stressed about time.
The bottom line
Experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress can be common in everyone, not just those with chronic illnesses or in other troubling situations. Furthermore, women tend to experience more anxiety than men, whether this is due to biology, gender roles, or other factors.
Although women are experiencing greater levels of anxiety, there are ways to manage it. Lifestyle changes like eating a healthy breakfast, getting regular exercise, practicing mindfulness, and getting better sleep can all help to reduce stress and anxiety. It’s also a good idea to take a hard look at what might be causing your anxiety and consider ways to relieve some of those triggers.
Don’t ignore your needs. Take control of your anxiety instead of letting it control you. And remember: you’re not alone.
If you enjoyed this article check out Morning anxiety and the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR).