While there are some people who seem to take everything that life throws at them in stride, the rest of us struggle with feelings of uncertainty, worry and fear of the unknown from time to time. Normally, our attitudes brighten with a change in circumstances or a fresh perspective, but for some people, a cloud of anxiety hangs around, no matter what.
We’re taking a closer look at generalized anxiety disorder this month, and how it affects men and women, with the help of Ken Jones, a psychologist and the director of behavioral health at Texas Health Arlington Memorial.
The National Institutes of Health defines generalized anxiety disorder as excessive worry or anxiety about normal daily life, occurring more days than not, for a period of six months or more. With little ability to control their overwhelming fears, people may see the negative effects of anxiety trickle down to their relationships, health, school and/or work performance, and feelings of overall well-being.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the most common signs and symptoms of anxiety are as follows:
- Feelings of nervousness, irritability or being “on edge”
- Feelings of panic or sensing impending danger or doom
- Increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating or shaking
- Feelings of weakness or exhaustion
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
General anxiety disorder usually comes on gradually and can occur at any time in life, but is most common between childhood and middle age. Evidence points to biological factors, family history and stressful life experiences and/or trauma as potential causes.
The NIH reports that generalized anxiety affects approximately 2.7 percent of American adults, with women experiencing the disorder at a higher rate (3.4 percent) versus men (1.9 percent). Around 5.7 percent of adults will experience anxiety at some point in life. Additionally, 2.2 percent of American teenagers ages 13-18 experience generalized anxiety disorder, with girls (3.0 percent) experiencing it at double the rate of boys (1.5 percent).
Around 264 million people across the globe have an anxiety disorder, which includes generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety and specific phobias. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and the prevalence of anxiety disorders is significantly higher for women (23.4 percent) than men (14.3 percent).
Jones says that while everyone will experience and react to anxiety differently, the medical community doesn’t completely understand why it occurs at different rates and leads to different responses among the sexes.
“The reality is that we still have a lot to learn about how gender affects other aspects of anxiety, such as age of onset, duration of symptoms or patterns of response,” he says. “The responses and coping strategies that individuals deploy in response to anxiety would likely be the product of heredity, social upbringing and personality traits.”
In an article published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, experts conducted research into the gender differences in anxiety disorders. The authors acknowledged the higher rate of incidence in women and sought to dig deeper into how it affects women and men differently.
Their research resulted in the following findings:
- Women experience higher lifetime diagnosis rates of all anxiety disorders, except social anxiety disorder, which occurs at the same rate for both men and women.
- There are no differences in the age of onset and chronicity of the illness between the genders.
- Women diagnosed with one anxiety disorder are more likely than men to be diagnosed with an additional anxiety disorder, bulimia nervosa and/or major depressive disorder, while men are more likely to be diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or intermittent explosive disorder.
- Experts saw a significant interaction between race and gender specific to people diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, as anxious Hispanic men were more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder (3.6 percent) than Hispanic women (2.1 percent).
- Women with anxiety disorders, particularly white and Hispanic women, were found to experience a greater illness burden than men, which signals a higher rate of disability for women with the disorders.
- Women tend to deal with their anxiety by agoraphobic avoidance, while men more often turn to substance abuse.
In addition, researchers found that emergency room, urgent care and doctor visits were more common for both women (1.04 visits vs. 0.59 visits) and men (0.71 visits vs. 0.49 visits) with an anxiety disorder than those without one. Women with anxiety also missed significantly more days of work (2.25 days/month) than those without anxiety (1.27 days), but there were no differences for men.
Jones says that employing healthy, familiar coping strategies can be helpful in managing anxiety.
“Self-care is always important and is becoming a lost art amidst the day-by-day demands imposed by both our culture and our internal expectations of performance,” he explains. “Intentionally creating space for relaxation, spiritual re-connection and meditation can be important to managing anxiety.
“It can also be helpful to identify effective coping strategies from our own past. Most of us have already been successful in managing anxiety-producing situations. Reviewing and re-adopting healthy coping strategies from the past can provide a practical roadmap for facing current challenges.”
Jones explains that people with anxiety should focus on helping themselves be the best version of themselves so they can best deal with the disorder.
“Gaining the perspective of a healthy, trusted third party or a professional counselor can be of great assistance in helping us when anxiety becomes overwhelming or we feel stuck,” he says. “It’s also important to remember that the mind and body are inextricably linked. Therefore, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy and getting regular exercise each week places our immune system in the best position to support the cognitive energies we need to rationally sort through anxiety.”
If you or a loved one needs behavioral health support from a professional, Texas Health provides outpatient and inpatient care across North Texas. For information on physicians and services near you, visit Texas Health Behavioral Health or call the helpline at 682-236-6023, which is available 24/7.