Chill Out, Girl: Why Women Have High Rates of Anxiety & How to Cope

Classical literature and 90s sitcoms have something major in common. No, not just archaic references and characters with ridiculous hair. The linking factor between the two is a shared trait between nearly all the female characters. Don’t get me wrong, there are some groundbreaking and heroic women in literature and sitcoms alike--the March sisters, Jane Eyre, DJ Tanner. But even these women, along with the less-sympathetic female characters in literature and TV, share anxious and neurotic tendencies. They worry constantly about everything. Think Monica Geller from Friends--the whole character is based around her obsessive tendencies and neuroticism. If you haven’t read Madame Bovary, I highly recommend it. Its main character, Emma Bovary, displays symptoms of bipolar depression so textbook that a psychologist could diagnose her a century and a half later (she also inspired a syndrome literally named “Madame Bovary Syndrome”). Generally, besides these shared qualities, women in literature and TV are still compelling and worthwhile characters with interesting stories to tell. But it’s worth asking where these stereotypes come from. Do women really have worse mental health than men?

In short, the answer is yes--both now and in history. Studies show today that women experience significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression and other disorders that fall into these categories. Obviously, women have different cognition than men--both biological tendencies and social training teach us to think and process information differently.

One theory is that women tend to “ruminate” on their problems, basically dwelling on the negative stuff. They internalize their emotions as opposed to men, who might act out in anger (say, punching a wall. We all know a guy like that.) This constant fixation on negative aspects of our lives increases stress. Unmanaged stress causes the release of the stress chemical cortisol in the brain which, in long-term excess, can lead to depression. Depression, in turn, depletes serotonin (a chemical responsible for mood regulation). Low levels of serotonin also cause anxiety.

Another possibility is that women experience illnesses that directly contribute to mood at higher rates than men. PMDD, a more severe form of premenstrual syndrome, presents symptoms such as depressed mood, fatigue, mood swings and high negative emotionality. Postpartum depression is common among women as well, characterized by a severely depressed mood and exhaustion after giving birth. And even more common than these hormone-related disorders is the use of hormonal birth control among women, which has been linked in many studies to an increase in the risk of depression and especially among those already prone to it.

Women show higher rates of disorders under the anxiety umbrella. Among these are several forms of eating disorders and post-traumatic stress (PTSD)--both of which are heavily affected by female socialization and experience. Interestingly, research suggests that women experience less trauma over the course of their lives than men. But sadly, the type of trauma matters greatly in the development of PTSD; sexual trauma, which women are far more likely to experience, has particularly severe effects on mental health. Furthermore, the social sanctions placed on so many women and girls because they are disbelieved or humiliated because of sexual trauma has deeply negative effects on women’s mental health in general.

There’s no question that a complicated mix of biological and social circumstances contribute to the higher rates of certain mental illnesses among women. Cognitive patterns and hormones can be blamed for many aspects of depression and anxiety. Being a woman can be highly stressful. It is undeniable that intergenerational social trauma, oppression and sexism have severe negative effects on women. Women face all manner of discrimination from bosses, coworkers, politicians, doctors, media  outlets and even family. Women and girls in the developing world face unbelievable forms of misogyny that undoubtedly causes lifelong trauma. Even worse, there is a pitiful amount of research on common female health problems--endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, postpartum depression, PMS and sexual pain. The lack of medical information around these numerous painful and sometimes debilitating disorders is incredibly frustrating for millions of women--a frustration that can lead to hopelessness and despair. A full 60 years after the invention of hormonal birth control, we still haven’t figured out how to mitigate many of its intense side effects. Imagine if cars or televisions hadn’t been updated since 1960--we’d all be enjoying black-and-white episodes of Game of Thrones on tiny black and whites.

Things are rough for women today in the United States and even rougher around the world. Women have been displaying symptoms of depression and anxiety for all of history. We can glean that from female characters in literature going back millennia, from Greek mythology to Shakespeare’s plays to the Twilight series. Women are stereotyped constantly as neurotic, stressed and highly emotional. Obviously, we have better options to deal with less-than-perfect mental health than our female ancestors did (many of them were just shipped off to the nearest asylum or burned as witches). We should demand better funding for research surrounding women’s health. We deserve legislators who respect our experiences and will fight for our bodily autonomy. We’re owed more funding for great mental health resources on campus and out in the world. We need to teach men and boys that women deserve equal respect and that we don’t exist for their pleasure and ease. Until every woman has access to great mental health care and lives in a society that respects her personhood, it’s likely that anxiety and depression will be a common part of the female experience.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, check out the resources below.

  •  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Here is a list of international suicide hotlines.
  • Text TALK to 741741 for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling.
  • Call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), for free, confidential support for substance abuse treatment.
  • Call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), for confidential crisis support.
  • Call Trevor Lifeline, 1-866-488-7386, a free and confidential suicide hotline for LGBT youth.
  • 7 Cups and IMAlive are free, anonymous online text chat services with trained listeners, online therapists, and counselors.