WSJ's Andrea Peterson: Greatest Risk for Anxiety is Being Female

Wall Street Journal writer Andrea Peterson discusses the reality that women are about twice as likely to suffer anxiety than men. Image credit: Massimo Ankor/Flickr

Taking the number one spot on the list of mental health issues in the United States, anxiety disorders affect roughly 18 percent of Americans 18 years and older - which comes to about 40 million people.

Wall Street Journal writer Andrea Peterson, author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, recently discussed why women are more at risk for developing anxiety disorders and how much of that risk might be attributed to socialization.

“Women are about twice as likely as men to develop [an anxiety disorder], and women’s illnesses generally last longer, have more severe symptoms, and are more disabling,” she writes. “Anxious women are also more likely to develop an additional anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, or depression. In general, women ruminate more than men.”

Girls absorb anxiety-producing messages early on in life:

There’s a pretty striking statistic that women have double the risk for anxiety disorders than men do. That’s something that I wanted to try to get at — why is that? There are several hypotheses — there’s some evidence that hormonal factors come into play, that women’s fluctuating levels of estrogen may contribute — but the most interesting and most robust science is looking at the social factors, how little boys and little girls are raised and the differences there, and how those contribute to the greater risk for women to later develop anxiety disorders. So there’s a whole body of dispiriting research showing how boys are much more likely to be encouraged to be independent, to be assertive, where girls are much more likely to be dissuaded from that behavior.

Do girls respond differently to social cues?

There was some research where mothers presented two toys, a rubber snake and a spider, to their toddlers; and in part of the study, mothers were told to describe the toy as scary or yucky and make frightened faces; and in other parts of the study, they were told to describe the toy as cute and fun and make positive, joyful expressions. And what they found is that boys and girls were both obviously more likely to respond to the toys in a fearful way when their mothers made the fearful expressions, but girls generally acted more afraid and were more likely to avoid the toys than boys were. So what they were trying to get at was, when you model behavior that you see from your parents, how might there be gender differences in this? And how might that then relate to development of anxiety?

Potential biological indicators:

There are also some people doing some really interesting things with sex hormones and how they influence anxiety. There’s some research looking at how sex hormones influence fear conditioning and extinction. Fear conditioning is a kind of paradigm of how people develop fear.