6 Fascinating Ways Women May Experience High-Functioning Anxiety Differently Than Men
While anyone can feel anxious and stressed, the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety don't look the same for everyone. In fact, there are many ways women experience anxiety differently than men, in terms of their symptoms and what they focus on.
"Even though gender equality has come a long way, women today still experience a 'double bind' of being expected by society to somehow balance being a perfect wife/partner, parent, and professional — all at the same time," Dr. Dana Udall, National Medical Director at Ginger.io, tells Bustle. "This is a common source of high-functioning anxiety for women.”
Societal expectations play a role, but biology might as well. "Studies have also linked hormonal differences with stress and anxiety, as women experience greater hormone level fluctuations, which can affect mood," Dr. Jeff Nalin, PsyD, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and founder and chief clinical officer at Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center, tells Bustle.
That's not to say, though, that men don't experience anxiety, but it may crop up in a different way. As Dr. Nalin says, "Very often, men themselves do not even realize that they are experiencing stress. Men tend to respond to stress by holding in their feelings or conversely by lashing out with bursts of anger and irritability." This may also have to do with gendered expectations which prevent men from expressing their emotions.
The good news is, there are ways for everyone to feel better. "For both men and women, high-performing anxiety can be managed and treated," Dr. Nalin says. "Little lifestyle changes, such as eating well, practicing mindfulness, exercising, [and] taking some 'me time' can help tremendously. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also extremely effective." With that in mind, here are a few ways women may experience high-functioning anxiety differently, according to experts.
1. Feeling On Edge
When women are experiencing high-functioning anxiety, it can put them on edge to the point they feel jumpy, irritable, or easily startled. And this is because women's bodies may be on are on high alert, often due to our overly packed schedules, and long list of expectations.
"There is so much expected of women," Dr. Michael Genovese, chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare, tells Bustle. "With this constant barrage of stress comes elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline, yet many women don’t recognize what they’re experiencing is anxiety or normalize these feelings."
It may become normalized, but it's still important to recognize anxiety symptoms for what they are. As Dr. Genovese says, "Some of these symptoms may include being hyper-vigilant, easily frightened, irritable, overwhelmed, and/or feeling nervous but tired at the same time due to lack of quality sleep."
2. Experiencing Physical Symptoms
Women may also be more likely than men to experience "somatic symptoms of anxiety, meaning you feel it more in your body," Dr. Crystal I. Lee, licensed psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist, tells Bustle. "You may experience things such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and feelings of being smothered."
But these physical symptoms can be subtler, too. "Even less severe things, like having aches and pains, or symptoms that masquerade as illness, like headaches and low energy, can actually be symptoms of anxiety," Dr. Lee says.
This may again be explained by societal differences, which show that women report more intense, more numerous, and more frequent bodily symptoms than men, partly due to the socialization process, which leads to differences in the readiness to acknowledge and disclose discomfort.
While you may be tempted to brush them off, this is your body's way of telling you the anxiety is getting out of hand. So the sooner you can make a few healthy lifestyle changes to reduce stress — or seek out the support of a therapist — the better.
3. Having Obsessive Thoughts
If it feels like your anxiety crops up in the form of racing thoughts or excess worry, you're definitely not alone. "Research has shown that women are more likely to react to anxiety by ruminating," Dr. Lee says, which means you may compulsively focus your attention on something.
"You might find yourself thinking about a certain mistake you made over and over again all night long, or worrying about all the possible consequences of a decision you made," Dr. Lee says. Just to name a few examples.
If it feels like these worries are beginning to impact your day, therapy may be a big help. Women are also more likely to experience depression than men, which can stem from these ruminating thoughts. According to one study, gender differences in depression result, in part, from women’s tendency to ruminate more than men. So this is one symptom to keep an eye on, before it causes more mental health problems.
4. Not Being Able To Sleep
Due to the various roles women are expected to fill — that of partner, career person, caretaker, and so on — they can be more likely than men to let health fall to the wayside.
"Very often, trying to balance all of these roles, women do not eat or sleep properly, which exacerbates stress and anxiety," Dr. Nalin says.
But even when they want to get to sleep, it can be difficult. "When stress is constantly present it becomes chronic and the stress response system becomes continuous, exposing us continuously to the stress hormone, cortisol, which can wreak havoc on our brains and bodies," Dr. Nalin says, including making it difficult to "turn off" and fall asleep.
But other health problems can arise, too. "Chronic stress causes our bodies to continuously prepare and react to an emergency, even when there is no emergency," he says. "This causes certain reactions in our bodies that can cause permanent damage. Women are particularly susceptible to this, due to the constant balancing act."
5. Worrying About Loved Ones
Due to the fact society often views women as the caregivers, and the pressure that coincides with this role, they may be more likely to feel worried and anxious about pretty much everyone in their lives.
As Dr. Lee says, "Not only are we worrying about our lives, we're stressed about the lives of our partners and children. Considering it's impossible to control the world and ensure your friends and family are happy, that can make a person really stressed and anxious."
6. Focusing On The Details
"When dealing with anxiety women are more likely to recall specific details of an experience, which can increase the level of anxiety," Alexandra Shirozono, LMFT, a clinical therapist for Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center, tells Bustle.
And this may be due to the way anxiety affects women's brain. "Some research shows that in addition to environment and personal experiences, biology and the amount of chemicals released differently in a woman than in a man — for example, serotonin — can also play a role in the way women experience anxiety differently than men," Shirozono says.
Keep in mind, though, that anyone can experience anxiety. And men can have these similar worries, stressors, and symptoms. For anyone, making healthy lifestyle changes to deal with stress, and seeking out therapy when necessary, can make it easier to keep high-functioning anxiety under control.