As a group, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than nineteen million Americans face anxiety disorders each year. And women are more vulnerable to most types of anxiety disorders than men.
"A greater risk for anxiety exists in females and this is especially apparent in the transition from childhood to early adulthood," explains Kamila S. White, Ph.D., director of the behavioral medicine program at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University.
There are many possible reasons for this gender disparity. Numerous studies have listed genetic, hormonal, environmental and social factors among potential causes.
"Some data suggests that females experience more traumatic events than males," White said, which could make them more vulnerable to anxiety. "There is also some research showing that women tend to be more attentive to threatening stimuli."
Differences in parenting and gender behaviors for boys and girls may play a role as well. "Girls tend to be reinforced for empathy and less assertiveness," White points out, "while boys tend to be reinforced for more assertive, active and independent behavior." These social reinforcements may render women more susceptible to anxiety disorders.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders which include specific phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder.
More than three million Americans suffer from panic disorder and two-thirds are women. Panic disorder is characterized by repeated episodes of intense anxiety and fear that manifest in physical and emotional symptoms including a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, tingling in hands and feet, chest pain and a fear of dying.
Despite the prevalence of these disorders, some women find it extremely difficult to obtain a proper diagnosis. In the book "Overcoming Panic Disorder: A Woman's Guide," authors Lorna Weinstock and Eleanor Gilman examine why women who suffer from panic disorder are often misdiagnosed. "Panic disorder frequently mimics physical ailments," they write, "in fact, it is considered one of medicine's greatest imposters."
People with panic disorder often spend time, energy and money in hospital emergency rooms or consulting physicians in an attempt to uncover the cause of their symptoms. Because it may be difficult to differentiate between the symptoms of panic disorder and other serious ailments, including heart disease, women and their physicians need to keep panic disorder on their radar screen.
Anxiety disorders are often treated with a combination of medication and specific forms of psychotherapy. "All good therapists should tailor treatments to the individual patient," White said. "Data support that cognitive behavioral therapies work equally well for men and women."
It is not uncommon for a person who suffers from anxiety to have another psychological ailment. Anxiety disorders frequently coexist with substance abuse, eating disorders and depression. Anxiety disorders can coexist with each other as well. A person who has panic attacks, for example, is more likely to be diagnosed with another anxiety disorder. Therefore, physicians need to be aware of this fact and work effectively to diagnose and treat each ailment a patient may have.