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Women Are More Than Twice as Likely to Develop Anxiety Disorders

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Women Are More Than Twice as Likely to Develop Anxiety Disorders

Dec 01, 2016

Anxiety is potentially the most common mental health concern in the U.S. and it’s on the rise. Forty million Americans have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and women are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men. Women’s expert Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones explores several explanations of why this is.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: Anxiety in young women is on the rise and is there any wonder why is this happening and what can we do? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from obstetrics and gynecology at University of Utah Health Care and I'm anxious about anxiety and this is The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is "The Seven Domains of Women's Health" with Dr. Kirtly Jones on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: Anxiety is a very common and perhaps the most common mental health concern in the United States. About 40 million Americans have anxiety disorders and women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety than men. College health centers are seeing a dramatic increase in anxiety in their students. One recent study of 63,000 college students found that there were five times as many young adults with high levels of anxiety compared to college students in the 1930s. So are we just more aware of mental health issues? Are young women more willing to seek help and, therefore, get counted?

As the pace of life and social media increased anxiety in young women, the truth is probably all of the above, but let's drill down on some of the causes, the consequences, and what to do. Firstly, there is evidence that the way a child responds to stressors may be both genetic and epigenetic. That means there are inherited genes that can contribute to overreacting the stimulus. But these genes have been around for a long time. So why is there more anxiety now?

The epigenetic story is that genes are modified by early stressors in early fetal development and early childhood development. Moms who are exposed to high levels of stress give birth to babies that are more likely to overreact to stressors. Children who have high levels of stress in their lives, poverty, homelessness, instability in their home life, have an increased chance of having anxiety and attention problems as adolescents.

Secondly, the environment of children and young adolescents is increasingly stimulating social media which may not be very supportive, bullying in schools, TV, increasingly dramatic news coverage, and video games that are violent and stimulating can contribute to high levels of stress hormones. Kids are getting less sleep and consuming more caffeine than ever before. Increasing use of some stimulants for attention disorder may also increase anxiety in kids who may not be taking it appropriately.

Thirdly, there is clearly an awareness in the schools and colleges that more kids have anxiety. Giving it a name lets us count it in adolescents. An increasing availability of medications to treat anxiety allows adolescents to state care. What is the bad part of anxiety for young women? Firstly, it feels awful and limits a young woman's ability to focus on the task at hand: school or work or healthy relationships.

Secondly, young women may self-medicate with alcohol or sedating drugs like opiates or Valium-like drugs that they obtain from friends or a family medicine cabinet. Young women who self-sedate in social settings are more likely to be sexually abused or overdosed.

So what should we do? The first thing is recognition of the problem. This goes back to the RULER project for emotional intelligence. "R" is for recognize. When you feel it, understand that you've felt this way before and you've survived it before. "U" is for understand what the triggers are and if the anxiety is about something that's really dangerous or not really dangerous. Label it. When you give that feeling the correct name, you can learn about it.

Express it. "E" is for express it. Let others know how you're feeling so they can learn more and help you. And "R" is for regulate it. Okay. How do you regulate anxiety? A healthy diet with less bad fats and high-sugar carbs and less caffeine can be helpful, actually, for everything. Eat regularly in small meals. Exercise vigorously four times a week with healthy friends, if possible. Get your sleep. Yes, if you're anxious, you can't sleep. But when you're not so anxious, make sure you get the sleep your brain needs.

Get more phone-free time. Are you addicted? It's time to withdraw from the stimulus of your social media and get some exercise. Every time that little beep goes off or the little buzz in your pocket, it makes your stress hormones go up. Practice mindfulness and deep breathing. Many studies have found that these practices can be helpful for anxiety. The old saying, "just take a deep breath," comes from some basic neurobiology of stress hormones. Take that deep breath and keep doing it for several minutes.

There are many websites to help with mindfulness training and breathing techniques. There are several good websites for young women, is one here in the US. One I really like comes from Australia. is a website for women's health issues. The AU is the Australia part. If you Google "anxiety young women Jean Hailes," you'll get to a terrific website on symptoms and healthy self-treatments for anxiety., and click on "Young Women."

Get help. Talk therapy can give you skills to break your anxiety. You will probably always have some level of anxiety, but the goal is to give you the toolbox to tune down a level of anxiety hormones so you can live a less stressed life. If your therapist isn't able to help you get control, medication taken daily that isn't addictive can help and it's approved for adolescents. You have the power to feel better and if that isn't working, we can help.

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