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Worrying impairs female brains: study

Date

Sandy Smith

Gender gap ... anxiety disorders are twice as prevalent in women.

Gender gap ... anxiety disorders are twice as prevalent in women. Photo: Aurora Daniels

If you're a born worrier, reading this won't calm you down. A new study has found that anxiety causes womens' brains to work harder than those of men and impairs performance.

Researchers at Michigan State University, set out to discover why anxiety, and worry in particular, is twice as prevalent in women as men and asked a group of college students to carry out a series of tasks while their brain activity was measured by an electrode cap. Only the women who acknowledged they were worriers, recorded high brain activity when they made mistakes during the task. "Our results suggest that anxiety impacts women's frontal brain regions dedicated to decision-making more so than men's," said Jason Moser, Assistant Professor in the department of Psychology at the university and lead investigator on the project. "Anxious girls' brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries," he said. "As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much."

Moser hopes the findings, reported in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, will help mental health professionals determine which girls may be prone to anxiety problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder in later life. "It's one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders," he said.

An anxiety disorder is a medical condition characterised by persistent, excessive worry, according to the national charity, SANE Australia. Beyondblue, the national depression and anxiety initiative, says anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in Australia with one in four people experiencing an anxiety disorder at some stage of their lives.

Kim Kardashian recently revealed she may be suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder after detailing her need for order and cleanliness in the UK's Sunday Times Magazine. "My bathroom is full of shower gels, body scrubs and shampoos — at least 20 different ones — all colour co-ordinated, height co-ordinated and scent co-ordinated," she said. "And I can't take a shower unless the bathroom is absolutely spotless. I think I'm totally OCD... everything has to be immaculate. I have a cleaner who comes three times a week, but I always do cleaning on top of that."

Moser believes there are several explanations behind why women have more anxiety disorders than men. "Some suggest that women just report more anxiety than men, so the higher rates of anxiety for women are merely an artifact of women admitting anxiety whereas men might hide such mental health problems. Other data suggest that men and women's brains function differently with regard to emotion, memory and decision making."

Moser is investigating the effects of the hormone estrogen on the brain. "Estrogen plays a significant role in shaping the way the brain functions, perhaps making it more susceptible to distracting anxious thoughts during some types of decision making," he said. "We already know that anxious kids – and especially anxious girls – have a harder time in some academic subjects such as maths," he says. "It is also possible that women who are anxious experience more significant impact of their worries on performance because they approach many tasks verbally, which is their strength, thus creating a 'double whammy' situation where their worries compound their verbal approach and make it harder to perform."

Catherine Madigan, a Melbourne based clinical psychologist at www.anxietyaustralia.com.au who specialises in the treatment of anxiety disorders agrees with Moser. "Certainly many of my anxious clients have reported they did poorly at school because of their anxiety. Anxiety negatively impacts on peoples ability to concentrate. If people have social anxiety, fear of being negatively judged or evaluated, they may have the added problem of being fearful to ask the teacher for assistance for fear of being thought stupid."

Michael Baigent, associate professor of Psychiatry at Flinders University and board director at beyondblue agrees estrogen might play a role but that further research is needed. He says that according to research men are more susceptible to stresses that relate to financial pressure whereas women are more likely to be susceptible to stresses relating to family, children and child bearing. "It might be that those stresses are more day to day events for women than for men." However, he advises, "if you do have an anxiety disorder it is important to treat it. Once your anxiety levels go high it will affect your ability to concentrate on things you can otherwise do. An anxiety disorder is a treatable condition."

In addition to traditional therapies for anxiety, Moser advocates other ways to potentially reduce worry and improve focus include journaling or "writing your worries down in a journal rather than letting them stick in your head" — and doing brain games designed to improve memory and concentration. "Journaling can relieve the weight of worries by getting the worries out of your head and crystallized on paper.  It's much easier to organize your thoughts on paper than in your head.  So, if you take the time to write out your worries and clear your mind, you can make sense of your anxiety and free up your brain to focus on things in life.  Worries really do weight on the brain, so if you can free your brain of the worries, even momentarily, by writing about them, your mind can focus on other more important things at hand."

For more information on anxiety disorders:

www.beyondblue.org.au or 1300 22 46 36

www.sane.org or 1800 18 7263

33 comments

  • This is a fascinating study. I wonder whether there is a correlation between this fevered brain activity in female "worriers" and pre-existing conditions such as PMS. Is it a genetic or environmentally-controlled predisposition? Parental or peer pressure during childhood?

    Commenter
    Poozer
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 09, 2012, 10:18AM
    • Is this cultural? Expecting women to tend and care for daily: the house, children, their beauty, shopping, meals, lunches, socialising, their job,? while men are responsible for ; financial provision and protection. They care for their children but unless they're single dad's, aren't expected to take primary responsibility for them.
      women are coached and criticised by each other, media and experts continually on almost every aspect of our lives. and you wonder why we get anxious?
      we can get therapy and journal, we can also take a leaf out of the success stories, I remember reading a book about writing fiction years ago. Chapter 1 said "Give Up Housework".

      Commenter
      T1
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 09, 2012, 12:46PM
      • Thank you for that exhaustive and generic explanation of everything men have to be concerned about.

        I, for one, am glad I now have so little to worry about!

        On a slightly less sarcastic and cynical note, here are the things I worry about:

        1) Employment.
        2) Relationship and ensuring it's getting enough attention
        3) The Future
        4) Keeping a tidy house
        5) Housing
        6) Savings
        7) Tertiary studies being undertaken
        8) Learning another language
        9) Finishing my damn novel
        10) Finding time for friends and families.

        I don't worry about what the media says, because, well, why would I? I prefer to actually read the original studies myself rather than something that's been passed through a filter to achieve maximum sensationalism. If I cared, I'd be anxious about the fact I'm not 6 four, muscle bound and looking like the guy who played Thor. That stereotype is reinforced everywhere.

        I also care about the house (I wash dishes, vacuum, take the rubbish out, water plants, tidy etc..and my wife does at least the equivalent in other tasks (preparing meals, washing, ironing and folding, linen etc...)). I also try to make sure I maintain a decent level of appearance for my wife and job (urggh...suits). Shopping we do together. Meals and lunches, my wife cooks, I do kitchen hand duties (washing, prepping etc..). Socialising...we all have to balance priorities.

        The issues you list are predominantly human concerns, not feminine concerns.

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 1:09PM
      • Women rest their case.

        Commenter
        Rachael
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 1:35PM
      • Tim the Toolman July 09, 2012, 1:09PM: I was going to reply to this offensive post, where men's contributions are so badly undervalued, but you beat me to the punch.

        Commenter
        Spike
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 2:12PM
      • @Spike

        I'm disappointed that T1's comments could be taken as all women thinking like that.

        Commenter
        Ripley
        Location
        Hunting Aliens
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 2:39PM
      • I can't quite tell if you're supporting my post or not, Rachel. If not, can you use a few more words to explain how I was off the mark, in your opinion?

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 2:40PM
      • Daily Life, you’ve done it again. Whether it’s the article content or the comments section, EVERYTHING in this segment seems to get turned into a gender debate. So boring, so stupid, so unrelated to life. How did this comment thread become a discussion of men’s perceived inadequacy? I thought it was an article about anxiety.

        I love men. I love women. I hate douchebags. If you’re the sort of person described in T1’s post who doesn’t share the load of life’s responsibilities with your partner, you’re a douchebag. Non-gender specific. If you’re like T1, and feel that you are bearing the burden for more than your fair share of a life you share with someone else, you might be dating a douchebag. Also non-gender specific. Solution? Don’t date douchebags. Date nice people, of either gender.

        Seriously though, I’m so tired of hearing about how crap men are, and then hearing in response how crap women are, and then having to read about it through really specific and singular examples of the time that x’s husband didn’t do the dishes and y’s wife couldn’t park the car and x’s boyfriend didn’t make dinner and y’s girlfriend nagged about whatever. Some people are lame – but that’s because SOME PEOPLE ARE LAME, not because they are representative of everybody who happens to be the same

        Commenter
        Claire
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 3:03PM
      • Correction to the end of my previous post:

        *... everyone who happens to be the same sex.

        Commenter
        Claire
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 3:12PM
      • Claire, this frustrates me too. All comments sections on Fairfax articles get high-jacked all this time. I think moderators should do more moderating, ie keeping threads on-topic. If people are boring, or irrelevent, or simply pushing their own agenda (eg all men are lazy morons), then they shouldn't be published.

        Commenter
        BB
        Location
        Inner West
        Date and time
        July 09, 2012, 4:26PM

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