Print

Did you know that of all psychological disorders, anxiety disorders are probably the most common and that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men?

It is important to keep in mind that anxiety is a normal and acceptable facet of human emotion, however, it is when this level of anxiety becomes excessive, when it disrupts normal living, that it becomes a cause for concern. Normal anxiety is an advantageous response that is activated in times of danger or uncertainty and it allows us to take action to deal with the situation at hand.

When anxiety levels reach extreme degrees, such that it interrupts a persons everyday normal functioning, it becomes an anxiety disorder. While every one of us may experience some anxiety over certain situations, things or thoughts, it is only when we are so impacted by it that it disrupts or causes disturbance in our everyday lives, that it actually becomes a disorder.

Medical and Psychological professionals have identified five major types of anxiety disorders. These are: panic disorder in which the person suffers form unexpected and recurring panic attacks, phobic disorders in which there are persistent and unrealistic fears of real objects and situations, obsessive compulsive disorder, in which the person has continuous and recurrent intrusive thoughts and impulses and post-traumatic stress disorder in which a person re-experiences past traumatic events through recurring and intrusive memories and dreams. Social phobia is also a type of anxiety disorder, in which irrational fears of social situations occur and finally, generalized anxiety disorder, in which ongoing anxiety and apprehension is experienced in the absence of any specific stressor.

In light of this it is important to note that in South Africa we are fortunate enough to have an organization that is dedicated solely to sufferers of depression and anxiety, namely the Depression and Anxiety Support Group. This group has a number of dedicated and trained counsellors offering their services from Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm, on Saturdays from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sundays from 9am to 1pm. Therefore, they act as a lifeline to anyone who is experiencing problems with any type of anxiety and/or depression and they ought to be contacted without hesitation on (011) 884-1797 or 783 1474/6 for counselling and referrals to mental health professionals.

It is interesting to note that, on average, 66% of the callers to the group are women. According to recent findings, women are two to three times more likely than men to experience panic. Similarly, women are two times more likely than men to experience generalized anxiety disorder and comparable ratios have been reported for the remaining anxiety disorders.

There are many causes of anxiety and various explanations have been put forward to explain the gender discrepancy. One such explanation is that the social position that women occupy precipitates anxiety. Women from all sectors of society seem to have more that their fair share of difficulties. Perhaps one of the most crucial roles that women play is that of caregiver and homemaker, not only to children but also to the elderly, the infirm, disabled and the ill. These pressures impact on women’s well being, often with all these responsibilities these women seldom have time or energy left to invest in their own interests.

This pattern however is also seen in working women. These women are invested in their careers not because of lack of interest in their families but because often one bread winner is not enough to make ends meet in today’s difficult times. Often working women begin to feel guilty for neglecting their families, guilt which often leads to anxiety. In addition, a career woman has a double load to deal with. When she comes home from work she often has to assume the role of homemaker and caregiver to those around her. “These women have such hectic schedules that there is often a build up of adrenalin, that can also precipitate anxiety” says Dr Colinda Linde, a psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg

An additional explanation put forward highlights the importance of reproductive hormones and the related cycles of women. There are many phases in a woman’s life, which are influenced by the level of the different hormones in the body and which may have an effect on emotional and behavior patterns. The most important hormones dominating throughout a woman’s life span are estrogen and progesterone. These hormones fluctuate at the onset of puberty, during the menstrual cycle, during and post-pregnancy and pre and post menopause. This has many implications for the treatment of anxiety, as if one seeks the aid of a medical practitioner, the choice of treatment available could be contingent on a woman’s particular biology and age.

An alternative explanation holds that perhaps the preponderance of women that experience anxiety may not in fact be a result of a real discrepancy but rather a consequence of anxiety in men going unrecognized and under-diagnosed. For instance, it has been postulated that perhaps men and women have different ways in which they react to stressors; be it emotional or otherwise. For example, according to leading Johannesburg psychiatrist in private practice, Dr Dora Wynchank, more men are diagnosed with other disorders such as a, Substance Abuse Disorder or an Anti-Social Personality Disorder; instead of being diagnosed with the underlying anxiety disorder is which is often at the root. Perhaps the higher rates of anxiety among women are recorded simply because women find it easier to seek help, enhanced by the fact that is socially sanctioned, while for men it is often considered taboo to seek help for emotional difficulties. A stressful workday is a good way of illustrating the differences between the reaction of men and women to potential anxieties. While a man may resort to alcohol or react aggressively toward his family at the end of a stressful day a woman may become tearful, anxious or depressed and consequently seek the help of a psychologist or general practitioner.

Despite the seriousness of anxiety and its related disorders it is not a death sentence or a morbid diagnosis. It is important to note that it can be effectively treated. Most often a combination of both psychotherapy, usually those involving thought and behavior modification, and medication such as anti-depressants and tranquilizers, works best.