According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): “From the time a
girl reaches puberty until about the age of 50, she is twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder as
a man.” The ADAA goes on to suggest this gender disparity may result from differences in how
men and women process serotonin or variation in hormone levels. The notion that hormones may
play a role in anxiety has been further supported by research relating to estrogen.
But others suggest the link between gender and anxiety isn’t quite so hard-wired. Instead, it’s the
way girls and boys have traditionally been socialized — with boys being taught to suck things up,
and girls encouraged to cry on a dime — which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not to
mention the real issue of perception bias. Are we simply seeing women as more anxious even
when they are not?
And even accepting for the moment that there are true gender differences, could it simply be that
women’s lives are more anxiety-provoking? As much as we have made strides toward equality,
women continue to face special burdens large and small — everything from worrying about the
threat of sexual violence to shouldering extra domestic responsibilities.
Regardless, shouldn’t we know — to a scientific certainty — exactly how and why women seem to
suffer from so much more anxiety than men? With women now being medicated for psychiatric conditions at a rate of one in four, as opposed to one in seven men, the stakes have certainly never been higher.
There is another thing to consider: Recent research suggests some positive attributes of anxiety.
For instance, there is evidence that anxiety might be linked to higher verbal intelligence. There is
also data which supports the notion that certain anxious people are better able to respond to some kinds of threats.
Of course, we don’t know if being more anxious makes you more verbally intelligent — it could
be a correlation, not a cause (though, as a highly-anxious person, I have my theories.) But if
women really are the more anxious sex, might we also be more verbally intelligent and better
able to respond to some threats? Isn’t it possible that while we — as a gender — suffer
disproportionately from the negative aspects of anxiety, we are also simultaneously benefiting in
Bottom line? We don’t know.
But don’t we deserve to? Shouldn’t women know exactly how and why they are more anxious,
and whether it might have any upside? Because at this rate — if there is some long-overlooked
benefit — there’s absolutely no chance we’ll ever get to take advantage of it.
Kimberly McCreight is the New York Times bestselling author of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA
and WHERE THEY FOUND HER. Her forthcoming novel, THE OUTLIERS, is about anxiety,
female intuition, and emotional intelligence and is published by HarperCollins.