Anxiety Disorders and Women

What to Know about the Most Common Form of Mental Illness

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Anxiety is a common emotion most busy Americans experience over daily stressors, but when it takes over your life you may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The most common type of mental illness in the U.S., anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults and occur significantly more often in women than in men.

The diagnosis of an anxiety disorder is made when the challenges of everyday living are overwhelming.

Here are four kinds of anxiety disorders women are often diagnosed with.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

This type of anxiety disorder, commonly referred to as GAD, is more common among women than men and often begins in childhood. The symptoms of GAD include constant worrying about everything; aches and pains including headaches, trembling, and muscle tension; always feeling tense; and an inability to relax, trouble focusing, constant fatigue, irritability and grouchiness, sleep problems, and hot flashes or night sweats. GAD frequently runs in families.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Also called OCD, this type of anxiety disorder causes frequently recurring and upsetting thoughts called obsessions. The compulsive component of this type of anxiety disorder includes repetitive actions, called compulsions, which are attempts to stop the obsessive thought process. People with OCD often have upsetting thoughts about bacteria, fear of hurting themselves or others, and strange thoughts about religion or sexual activity, among other things.

Sometimes compulsions include things like uncontrollable hand washing, excessively organizing and cleaning, counting, or repetitively checking things (like constantly checking to see if you locked the door).

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is present in people who have frequent, intense feelings of fear called panic attacks.

Other symptoms associated with panic attacks include a rapid heartbeat, chest pain, breathing difficulty, sweating, chills, hot flashes, fear of death, feeling like you're "going crazy," shaking, trembling, tingling feelings, stomach distress, feeling out of control and dizziness. There is no rhyme or reason to panic attacks; they can happen anywhere at anytime. People who have panic attacks often begin to fear going to places where they experienced past panic attacks. Panic disorder usually begins between the ages of 18 and 24 and it can also begin during times of extraordinary stress. Women are more likely to have panic disorder, although it does affect some men.


A phobia is an abnormal fear that changes the way a person behaves. In other words, people who have a phobia are needlessly afraid of something that poses little or no actual danger. Phobias that involve single situations are called specific phobias. Specific phobias include things such as feeling fear the first time you meet someone, or being fearful of heights, flying or the dark. Some people have social phobias which can include fear of embarrassment or fear that someone will look at them or laugh at them in public.

Symptoms include nightmares and other sleep problems, irritability, feeling of detachment or numbness, depression, anxiety, easy startle reaction, loss of interest in things previously enjoyed, inability to feel affection, and aggressiveness or occasional violence depending on the cause of the disorder. One in 10 Americans suffers from specific phobias and over half of those affected by phobias are women.

Living with Anxiety Disorders

Coping with life is extremely difficult for those who have anxiety disorders due to constant interruption by anxiety. The good news is that anxiety disorders are treatable; however, it’s important to remember that anxiety disorders are serious illnesses that often grow worse when left untreated.

Treatments for anxiety disorders include medication and behavior therapies. If you and your doctor choose medication therapy to treat your anxiety disorder, be sure that you are not prescribed the highly-addictive class of anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Ativan, Klonopin, and  Xanax) for longer than two or three weeks. Other non-habit forming anti-anxiety medications such as Buspar are available, and antidepressant medications such as Paxil and Celexa are frequently used to treat anxiety.

Although medication therapy often provides a quick-fix for anxiety disorder sufferers, it does not produce the long-term behavioral changes accomplished through behavioral or ‘talk’ therapy to identify and treat the underlying cause of anxiety. Because behavior therapy forces us to face our anxiety and helps us to learn how to change our reaction to particular objects, situations, or events, it is significantly more likely to have a positive long-term effect on anxiety disorders than medication therapy. Cognitive behavior therapy is the type of therapy used with the most success in anxiety patients.

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, ask your physician to recommend a mental health professional who can diagnose and treat your anxiety. With proper treatment, a full and healthy, anxiety-free life is possible.


Facts & Statistics: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA

National Women's Health Information Center

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