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Women under 35 at greatest risk of anxiety.

Women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than men, and women under 35 are the age group most at risk, new research out of the University of Cambridge has found.

Why?

Because women have more to worry about.

The report reviewed 48 previous studies to discover the underlying trends behind the condition. It found the following stats:

  • 4% of the overall population will suffer from anxiety

  • Women and men under age 35 are more likely to experience anxiety than older individuals

  • Women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than men

  • Pregnant women and new mums are more likely to show signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.

“Early adulthood is the period with the highest peak in anxiety,” the report states. “Women are almost twice as likely to be affected as men (female:male ratio of 1.9:1), with sex differences persisting over time and across high and low resource settings. Irrespective of culture, individuals under the age of 35 years are disproportionately affected by anxiety disorders.”

Anxiety is awful and all-encompassing to experience. It can manifest in shortness of breath, the feeling that everything is out of your control, a constant, underlying fear of something is will go terribly wrong, nausea, restlessness, debilitating low energy, muscle tension, sweats, irritability, impatience….

Aside from being awful to experience, anxiety has been linked to wider, long-term health problems like psychological disorders and substance abuse. This, more than anything, is why it’s important to understand the condition.

“Anxiety disorders – defined by excess worry, hyperarousal, and fear that is counterproductive and debilitating – are some of the most common psychiatric conditions in the Western world,” the report states. “Clinical reviews have shown that the presence of an anxiety disorder is a risk factor for the development of other anxiety and mood disorders and substance abuse.”

Anxiety has also been linked to gastrointestinal disorders, chronic respiratory disorder and heart disease.

So why are women most affected?

Our hormones

Estrogen levels are linked with the fear response. Low estrogen levels – which occur throughout the menstrual cycle – leave women more perceptible to post-traumatic stress symptoms, and more likely to be affected by emotional disturbance. Higher, more regular estrogen levels, on the other hand, help calm the fear response.

Because estrogen is more stable in a men’s brain, compared to the female cycle, this could contribute to the ‘gender gap’ in anxiety levels – we have to deal with an over-reactive fear response once a month! For this reason, researchers are looking to the way the contraceptive pill, which helps regulate estrogen, can help manage anxiety and PTSD.

We’re multi-taskers

Mother, wife, professional, driver, nurse, nit remover, listener, sympathiser, leader, lover… Women are so used to multitasking (not to mention multitasking on a lesser wage) we don’t always realise (sometimes we do realise, in the worst, most flooring way) how these interchangeable roles might affect our anxiety levels.

Women tend to multi-task – they do lots at once and are flexible – and so they use more of their actual brain than men do,”  Professor Jim Horne, the director of the Sleep Research Center, told the New York Post.

This endless thought torrent, and habit of doing absolutely everything all at once, has been shown to contribute to anxiety. For this reason, Horne says, women need to sleep more. It’s to do with the way our brains are wired, and the way we process information. If we don’t get this sleep, it will lead to psychological distress and a downright bad time for the other people in our lives.

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“Women’s brains are wired differently so their sleep need will be slightly greater,” Horne said. “For women, poor sleep is strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress and greater feelings of hostility, depression, and anger. In contrast, these feelings were not associated with the same degree of sleep disruption in men.”

These signs will help you know if you should see a psychologist. Post continues below video.

We’re perfectionists

Trying to be perfect can cause anxiety, Harvard researchers have found. While men tend to be over-confident and will understate their drawbacks, women will be under confident and underestimate their abilities. The result? Any thing we do, we do with an eye for perfection. We worry about the consequences of getting something wrong, and we over-analyse the steps required to complete a task well.

This is particularly true for our professional lives. We are more likely to blame ourselves when a professional task fails, and women are more likely to hold themselves back from answering a question, applying for a raise, or putting themselves up for a promotion until they’re 100% certain they can tick all the boxes.

The core of all perfectionism is the intention to do something well,” clinical psychologist Jeff Szymanski told Healthbeat. “If you can keep your eye on intention and desired outcome, adjusting your strategy when needed, you’re fine…. But when you can’t tolerate making a mistake, when your strategy is to make no mistakes, that’s when perfectionism starts veering off in the wrong direction.”

The worst case scenario, you become so focussed on doing everything well.. you end up paralysed, and not dong anything at all. The key, Dr Szymanski says, is to prioritise tasks effectively (and also somewhat ruthlessly).

Ask yourself:

“What do you find valuable in life? What would you want 50 years of your life to represent? If that seems overwhelming, think about where you want to put your energies for the next five years.”

The path forward…

Perspective, ruthlessness, delegation and more sleep (plus a magical way to control hormones) are all factors that can contribute to lessening anxiety in younger women.

By knowing that young people, particularly women, are the group at greatest risk of experiencing anxiety – but also being aware that men are less likely to report anxiety than women – we can start targeting the people who need it the most.

This ‘targeting’ should equal education. We need to be aware of its symptoms, understand its potential causes and triggers, and realise the ways – sleep, meditation, hormone control – we can help prevent it. Anxiety is a debilitating and isolating condition that not only has huge ramifications for the short and long-term health of the individual, but also for society as a whole.

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