FEATURE: Why women are not alright: The hard truth about anxiety.

Andrea Peterson, author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxietywrites that the greatest risk factor for an anxiety disorder is not genetics, past trauma or stressful life experiences.

Simply, it’s being born female.

A study released over the weekend by Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, found that 40 per cent of Australian women have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or depression by a doctor or psychologist.

A “concerning” number expressed issues with sleep and reported, “worrying excessively about different things”.

For most of us, 40 per cent looks very much like two meaningless digits. We can’t quantify it – and we certainly can’t feel it. “Worrying excessively,” sounds clinical and emotionless, when anxiety is by it’s very nature emotional.

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So what do those statistics actually look like?

They look like lying under your bed for hours at a time, yet feeling as though you’re tripping down a flight of stairs. It’s moving through the world believing you’re an empty vessel – watching yourself from above, convinced you’re in a dream.

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It’s chronic, unwavering guilt. It’s self-sabotage – preparing for things that matter to you and freezing. It’s lying awake in bed at 4am, feeling as though there’s a tonne of bricks on your chest. It’s hating yourself more than you’ve ever hated anyone. It’s believing a terrorist attack or a natural disaster is imminent. It’s wondering if these heart palpations will kill you.

To be clear, this is the crisis we are talking about. This is what women live with.

It’s one thing to identify that women’s mental health is a national emergency. But it’s another – far more difficult task – to try and determine the cause.

The first theory is a lack of exercise.

Helen Brown, the director of the survey that involved 10,000 Australian women aged 18 to 80, found a correlation between the rise in mental health issues, and a steep decrease in physical activity in women.

Brown says, “It was really interesting that 60 per cent of women nationwide said they weren’t active enough, as that’s almost counter-intuitive considering that physical activity is a great way to deal with anxiety.”

POST CONTINUES BELOW: We are living in the Age of Anxiety. Three anxious women discuss.

The second theory is that technology and social media are to blame.

“I think they put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to be ‘ever-ready’, to be on Instagram et cetera, which means they constantly have their phone in their hand and being ready for it,” Brown says of Australian women.

The third theory is that anxiety disproportionately affects busy women.

“That work-life balance that we seem to promote so heavily preys on women, they feel guilty about it,” Brown says.

There is, of course, no one factor that can lead to an epidemic of these proportions. If only the answer was as simple as ‘Instagram’.

So we spoke to three Australian women who live with anxiety, and asked them why they think we live in such an anxious climate.

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Sophie* is 36 and has been plagued by anxiety since she was a tween. She was always labelled a ‘worrier’. In her 20s, she was formally diagnosed with anxiety, and says that since having kids her anxiety has become far more prominent. “There is so much more to worry about,” Sophie told Mamamia. “You go through a bit of an identity crisis when becoming a parent and saying goodbye to your old self.”

For Sophie, anxiety can be debilitating. She lives with a serious phobia that she finds herself avoiding at all costs, and it becomes prominent when she’s highly anxious. For 15 years, Sophie has taken medication to treat her symptoms. “Day to day I have very fast breathing and have to consciously slow my breathing down to manage the amygdala part of my brain,” she told Mamamia. “I can often feel my heart racing. When a panic attack is coming I will start shaking and can feel my whole body pulsing. I will also feel really nauseous and have IBS symptoms.”

So, why does Sophie think Australian women are in crisis? “I think we put way too much pressure on ourselves,” she rationalised. “There is a constant underlying competitiveness which is exacerbated by social media and the ability to compare with others.”

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Lisa* is 47 and until four years ago was a high ranking executive with one of Australia’s most successful multi-national companies. She has two kids, a husband, a dog and a decent mortgage. Her childhood was “idyllic”, she wasn’t a worrier, and skated through her 20s and 30s.

“If I had to describe my life its been pretty uncomplicated and I’ve been lucky. Until I was in my 40s I’d never experienced any major setbacks. I just kind of cruised along and, yet, I kept moving up in my job, my house got bigger, I had kids.”

Image via Getty.

It wasn't until Lisa turned 40 that she now knows her life was impacted by anxiety. She was head-hunted and moved into a new role in a new organisation and it was challenging.

"I kept thinking I was a fraud and would be found out at any moment. I persevered and kept pushing and I understand now I was doing my job very well - I just didn't believe it."

Lisa had an after-school nanny for her two primary school aged children and was on the phone daily to her mum who had become very ill.

"I was class parent. I was working. I was sending emails at 1am. I was cleaning the house before kids came over to play because I didn't want people to think I was failing."

For two years she kept "trying and trying" to "not fail people".

"I had digestion issues. I started to get paranoid about my husband making it home safely from work. I thought I was going to be fired any minute. When it came to the kids I worried about everything you can think of. It was more than worry, it was debilitating like a weight, that was also hollow, inside me all the time. I was drinking a lot too."

Lisa ended up going to the doctor and being diagnosed with anxiety. She tried therapy which worked for her and she still checks in now.

"I call it situational anxiety. Too much was going on, my life was out of control and then my thoughts followed."

When it comes to the question of what causes anxiety in so many women, Lisa said,  "For me, it was trying not to fail when I truly thought I was failing at everything: being a good mum, a good daughter a good employee. I think because I'm female I was brought up to do things right, but I was also brought up to doubt myself and poke holes in myself."

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Nita* is 32, lives in rural Australia and is very accomplished in her career.

"I was about 26 when I was first officially diagnosed," Nita told Mamamia. "It was severe Generalised Anxiety Disorder to the point of regular panic attacks and night terrors. The night terrors were especially confronting because I wouldn't recognise my husband in that panicked frantic state.

"When I look back there were elements of that anxiety that had been present in my life for a long time before it reached the tipping point it did.

"It was a big crash to be in my mid 20s, in a high flying job and then to have to take time out because I was burning out and couldn't focus on the right sort of strategies in that environment..."

It wasn't until Nita stepped out of the work force, that she learned how to best manage her anxiety.

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She found medication hugely beneficial for the first few years, but then did a formal eight week mindfulness program, and discovered she was able to manage without the medication. Today, she knows, "it's there if I need it, and no doubt at some point in the future I will".

Nita has given a great deal of thought to why condition is affecting so many Australian women. "Young women are under enormous pressure," she said. "To do everything, younger and faster, and in a way that presents a perfect version off themselves. I'd felt the weight of expectations to succeed and over achieve for a long time.

"We grew up on diet of 'girls can be anything they want'. And I have two main problems with this statement. Is that there was a hidden 'should' in there. That we should be the best/perfect/immensely successful/glass ceiling breakers. The second is that 'Girls can be anything they want... but you have to make choices, and your probably can't be everything you want at the same time'".

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I am not a psychologist or a statistician. But I am an Australian woman who has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and here is what I know.

I know women have a debilitating relationship with the word 'should'. We should be eating more vegetables, we should be drinking more water, we should lose weight, we should be more established in our careers, and we should be saving more money.

We think we 'should' be a different person in six months. It's the one-syllable word that punctuates our lives.

We're not even sure where that voice is coming from - but it's far too loud to be the fault of social media alone.

I know that when we hit adolescence, our bodies change in a way that contradicts the cultural ideal. We lose the effortless thinness, while developing hips and breasts and lumps and hair. This does not happen to men in the same way. With their development comes muscles and facial hair, moving in a direction that better reflects the cultural ideal. It is as teenagers that women learn to hate themselves.

Jessie Stephens
"I'm a young Australian woman who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression."

I know I take medication everyday and that's the only thing that's helped. Medication sometimes feels like a wall, making me unable to properly access the anxiety and depression that was once inescapable. I know it makes me feel as though I'm only surviving because I'm cheating. Who I am on medication is a fundamentally different person to who I am without it.

I know at least half my friends see a psychologist. Some don't know what their purpose is, or why they can't stop crying.

I know we dismiss dating as fun and frivolous, but I'm also sure that experiences like being 'ghosted' or being cheated on or being single when you desperately don't want to be, makes women profoundly sad. And I also believe some women are less inclined to admit that they thought they'd be married by now, or desperately want children, than they might have been a generation ago.

I know that we have more freedom than our mothers and their mothers, but I also know that with freedom comes choice. And choice - like when you're trying to choose the 'right' soap from 53 different options - can be crippling.

I know that it doesn't help to have access to thousands of people at any given moment, through Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, and feel like you inevitably made the wrong choice, Through a glass screen, everyone is always having more fun than you.

POST CONTINUES BELOW: You can listen to the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here. 

I know that sometimes more than what we see on our phones or on our laptops, it's the very pace of it that is completely overwhelming. Everything feels so fast.

I know that anxiety and depression are the two worst experiences I've ever had - worse than any physical illness - and that nothing else has the power to ruin entire periods of your life quite like mental illness does.

But I also know that exercise helps beyond measure. I don't necessarily mean going to the gym five times a week or running at 6am. Any physical activity, even if it's a walk around the block, releases tension. Getting enough sleep helps, as does sticking to a routine and eating properly.

The two best things for me, have been medication and seeing a psychologist. I also know how hard it is to access our strained mental health system, and get the help you need when it's emergency.

The statistics are dry and straightforward. Being female is the single greatest risk factor. And now we have to try and determine why.

So, what do you know?

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety, depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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