Every year 19 million Americans are affected by anxiety disorders, with the majority of those cases occurring in women. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly reported mental illness in the United States today. Of the reported cases, nearly 6 million of those are people who suffer specifically from panic attacks, and about three fourths of all panic disorder patients are women. A certain amount of anxiety in one’s life is normal and expected, in fact it helps people get things done, be productive, and achieve goals. However, when the anxiety increases to a level that prevents us from acting or simply going about our daily routine, without a warranted stimulus, it is time for concern.
A panic attack is defined as a frequent and intense feeling of fear, which may include a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, chest pain, sweating, shaking, chills or hot flashes, nausea, tingling, dizziness, and a sense of being out of control. Attacks can come on without warning, with the first occurrence usually rearing its head between the ages of 18 and 24. The sudden nature of the experience often leads to patients not wanting to leave the sanctuary of their homes for fear of an attack overcoming them in a public place. Not only can it be embarrassing, but patients report feeling that the act of entering certain social situations or specific places actually stimulates the attack, although most research disputes this fact.
Experts continue to debate the causes of higher rates of anxiety in women than in men, often citing biological, cultural and societal reasons for this large disparity. Most agree that it is a combination of all of these factors. Research suggests that levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body affect women’s susceptibility to anxiety. For example, women are the most prone to anxiety when levels of these hormones are low such as during premenstrual syndrome, post-partum depression, and menopause. While hormones play a significant role, cultural norms and parenting contribute as well.
From birth, most women are taught that emotions, like anger, are not acceptable forms of expression and moreover, reveal a character flaw or weakness. The single emotional response that is often permitted is sadness, which manifests as tears, while all other emotions are hidden below a veil of anxiety. Anxiety becomes a crutch, the woman’s coping mechanism in unpleasant scenarios. Rather than expressing her true emotional state, her conditioned automatic response is worry. The irony being that in order to relieve the anxious feelings the underlying feelings must be faced and lived through.
Unfortunately, there is a cyclical nature to the prevalence of anxiety in women. Inherently, people are afraid of abandonment and rejection, things that are completely out of their hands. When mothers are anxious, thus not accessible to a child in the way the child needs, the child often takes on the behavioral patterns of the mother and develops a great deal of anxiety herself. A child will throw a temper tantrum to illicit the response that she wants from her mother. Upon not receiving the desired response, the child experiences despair, which over time leads to detachment and finally anxiety. Anxiety works hard protecting the individual from the deeper core feelings. The child is angry at the mother’s emotional absence.
There are a number of ways to treat anxiety disorders and prevent panic attacks. Talk therapy is an integral part of regaining stable mental health when dealing with an anxiety disorder. With the help of a therapist you can uncover the feelings that lie beneath the anxiety. He or she can help you experience those hidden feelings and begin to operate from a place of truth rather than through a learned behavioral coping mechanism and to reframe your belief systems through cognitive restructuring. One must recognize the physical feelings in the body that accompany episodes of increased anxiety and find ways to study these sensations, while simultaneously quieting the mind and developing coping resources. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple breathing exercise.
In the meantime, hormonal imbalance can be reversed in the short term through prescription drugs. It is important to follow the dosages closely as many of these drugs can be addictive if taken for extended periods of time. Natural remedies also promote mental wellbeing. St. John’s Wort has long been considered a natural antidepressant. Additionally, enough cannot be said of the healing properties of a regular sleep regimen, exercise, and a balanced diet. All of these contribute to an individual’s mental state of being.
Dr. Brandt is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Monica, CA.
“For more information on this topic or to contact Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., M.F.T., please visit www.theangerzone.com.”