Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting approximately 18.1% of the population every single year. And while they are highly treatable, less than 37% of these people actually seek treatment. Part of this has to do with the stigma attached to mental illness. Occasional anxiety before an important event such as a job interview or blind date is a perfectly normal stress-induced reaction. What separates this from an anxiety disorder is the latter is permanent and can get worse over time. Some people normalize or play down the amount they actually fret and the extent to which their anxiety interferes with everyday life. A paper published by the journal Brain and Behavior found that women are almost twice as likely as men to experience anxiety. There is no one reason for this discrepancy— Researchers believe the statistic is a culmination of biological and social factors. Differences in brain chemistry, hormonal fluctuations, and coping strategies play a role, as well as reproductive stages throughout women's lives (a surge in progesterone and oestrogen during pregnancy can result in OCD— isn't being a woman grand?) Women are also prone to overthinking stressful situations whereas men are more likely to take some sort of action. A lot can be said about the social and historical reasons for this, but that is a separate post or hundred altogether. In any case, considering the enormous disparity in both frequency and cause between the genders when it comes to anxiety disorders, it only makes sense the manifestations and coping mechanisms are also varied. The following are signs of anxiety that are especially common among women:
1. You are constantly worried and on edge
An anxiety disorder is persistent. You find yourself worrying about something constantly. Sometimes, you don't even know what it is that's causing you so much tension, you just feel caught in an endless loop of ceaseless unease. These feelings are so overwhelming that they often interfere with work, school, or familial and social obligations. Co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute Sally Winston says "The distinction between an anxiety disorder and just having normal anxiety is whether your emotions are causing a lot of suffering and dysfunction."
2. You believe bad things will happen unless you do things a certain way
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder, so it is no wonder OCD thoughts and behaviors are frequently used as coping mechanisms for stressful situations. If you find yourself engaging in very specific rituals in order to avoid bad things happening (even if you know this is illogical) and focusing on obsessive thoughts you feel powerless over, it is time to seek proper treatment in order to take back control. Another manifestation of OCD behavior is rigid perfectionism. "If you are constantly judging yourself or you have a lot of anticipatory anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your standards, then you probably have an anxiety disorder," says Winston.
3. You have trouble sleeping
You are constantly tired and irritable, and winding down your mind at the end of the day is a struggle. When you do manage to fall asleep, you rarely make it through the entire night, resulting in a general fatigue which impacts your focus and overall well-being.
4. You experience panic attacks and/or flashbacks
If you experience sudden and unexpected moments of heart-pounding helplessness, accompanied by breathing problems, chest pains, or dizziness, you are familiar with how terrifying and crippling a panic attack can be. Symptoms also include tingling numbness in hands and arms, weakness, and feelings of impending doom. People who experience frequent panic attacks don't necessarily suffer from an anxiety disorder, but they can be symptoms of one. Reliving traumatic events (such as panic attacks) is another possible side-effect of an anxiety disorder. Some people with social anxiety have traumatic flashbacks to experiences that may not seem obviously traumatic to others, but which in fact resemble PTSD-like flashbacks.
5. You often doubt yourself
And not just the usual self-doubt most experience, such as Imposter Syndrome or wariness at beginning a new job or challenge. You doubt yourself so much you sometimes double-guess facets central to your identity, like your sexual orientation or an unfounded fear your best friend of fifteen years is making fun of you behind your back. Winston says such 'doubt attacks' are more common when a question has no definite answer. Those suffering from this manifestation of OCD "think, 'If only I would know 100% for sure whether I was gay or straight, either one would be fine,' but they have this intolerance for uncertainty that turns the question into an obsession." Of course these are the more extreme expressions of anxiety disorder. Constantly feeling self-conscious or as though all eyes are on you in many perfectly normal situations can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks.
6. You dread and avoid social situations
Again, a little bit of fear and uncertainty is to be expected in certain new situations. However, if you find yourself panicking at the thought of ordering meals at a restaurant or having to speak with the cashier at a grocery store, you are definitely suffering from an anxiety disorder and should seek a counselor as soon as possible. You may also experience dread at the thought of having to leave your home or your comfort zone to an intense degree. You are worried you may find yourself in a situation you will not be able to easily escape.
7. You have chronic indigestion
The stress forced on your physical body as a result of severe anxiety can oftentimes reveal itself in the form of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which Winston says "is basically an anxiety in the digestive tract." The relationship between the gut and the brain is a strong one, and it is not unsual for stress of the mind to cause stress in the stomach. This can become a vicious cycle, with anxiety fueling stomachaches and vice versa. Women often have a difficult time seeking help or acknowledging they need it. However, if you suffer from one or more of these symptoms, addressing them as soon as possible will only serve to alleviate your torment and set you on a path of freedom and happiness sooner. Don't be afraid to ask for help.