Anxiety gender gap: Are women really more anxious than men?

Snapshots of life at home.
April 20 2011 12:46 PM

Nervous Nellies

Girls don't start out more anxious than boys, but they usually end up that way.

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The result of these parenting disparities is that by the time girls grow into young women, they've learned fewer effective coping strategies than their male counterparts, which translates to higher anxiety. The sexes learn to deal with fear in two very different ways: men have been conditioned to tackle problems head-on, while women have been taught to worry, ruminate, and complain to each other (hey, I'm just reporting the research) rather than actively confront challenges. These are generalizations, of course; the fact that I have always been an Olympic-caliber worrier offers us just one example of how men can fret with the best of them, and everyone knows at least one woman who appears not even to know what fear is. Still, these differences in upbringing clarify quite a bit about the gender gap in anxiety.

Yet parenting doesn't tell the full story of feminine nerves, because even if a young woman emerges from childhood as a relatively cool and resilient adult, she still has to do battle with social forces that seem bent on making her anxious. You may expect me to dwell here on the viselike pressure that contemporary culture exerts on women to look beautiful and young forever (one highly questionable survey found that women worry about their bodies an average of 252 times a week), but while this is a significant issue, the cultural biases about women and anxiety run deeper still.

We have an odd tendency to label women as anxious even when they aren't. A recent, highly revealing study showed that even in situations in which male and female subjects experience the same level of an emotion, women are consistently seen—and even see themselves—as being "more emotional" than men. It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that this bias holds for anxiety as well; we buy into the fretful-women stereotypes far too often. Another report, for example, found significant differences in the way doctors respond to patients who report common stress symptoms like chest pain: Whereas men get full cardiac workups, women are more often told that they're just stressed or anxious, and that their symptoms are in their heads.

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It should be pretty clear by now that the claims about women being far more innately anxious than men are suspect, but before I depart in a blaze of justice, one final point is in order: Men are getting off much too easily in the anxiety discussion. Probably the most significant reason why women get diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men isn't that they're doubly fearful. It's because anxious men are much less likely to seek psychological help.

The flip side of being raised to always show strength is that men come to feel that going to a therapist is a sign of weakness or failure (think of Tony Soprano's mopey resistance to the benefits of psychiatry), which is why men constitute just 37 percent of therapy patients, by some estimates. If nearly twice as many women seek help from a psychologist, then they'll obviously be diagnosed more often with anxiety disorders. Troublingly enough, the evidence shows that while women deal with anxiety and stress by worrying, men are more likely to try to bury these feelings with alcohol or drugs—which offers one rationale for why men are at higher risk for "antisocial" disorders like alcoholism.

So take heart, women of the world: You're not necessarily bioengineered to be worry machines. The deeper truth behind the great anxiety divide is this: We all get stressed-out and nervous sometimes. Women are simply more honest about their anxiety, because they've been taught to deal with it through unencumbered fretting. Of course, I'm not about to declare that if we raised boys and girls exactly the same, eradicated the cultural anxiety bias against women, and frog-marched more men into therapy, the gender nervousness gap would magically disappear. We would almost certainly see, though, that this gap is far smaller than we think.

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