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The anxiety gender gap – the researchers taking it on

We explore the research around the 'gender gap' in anxiety disorders and the scientists who are taking it on. 

Women are now twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Those living with the condition talk about the debilitating symptoms, which include panic attacks, sleep difficulties and prolonged feelings of worry.

Recent data revealed that almost three out of ten anxiety hospital admissions were women aged 60 and over, and that admissions for stress were highest in girls aged 15 to 19 years old. Over half of young women also report feelings connected to wider mental health concerns, such as a lack of self-confidence, compared to 39 per cent of men. But the reasons for this gender disparity are still unclear. 

We take a look at the researchers who are investigating the unanswered questions around anxiety in women - taking on major challenges and looking to improve the lives of those living with this condition. 

Making a case for early intervention

As with physical illnesses, studies have demonstrated that intervening early in mental health conditions is crucial to improving the chances of recovery and enabling people to live a full life. 

Evidence collected by Dr Elian Fink and colleagues shows that issues relating to anxiety develop from a young age, and this is particularly the case in women. As part of a questionnaire on mental health issues, Elian and her team surveyed 1,600 11-13 year olds and found that a staggering one in five young girls in school are likely to suffer emotional problems, compared to one in fourteen boys.

With so many young women experiencing mental health difficulties – a strong case could be made for creating targeted interventions aimed at a young age group. Ultimately, we need to understand more about why women appear to be at a greater risk, and invest in research to find the best ways to reduce and tackle this threat. 

Understanding anxiety and hormone levels

One theory as to why women are disproportionately affected by anxiety, looks at biological disparities in men and women which play out here through hormonal differences.

Dr Rita Valentino is looking into the differences between how men and women process stress on a biological level. She conducted research in animal models which tested the levels of the hormone involved in the response to stressful situations - the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). The study found the function of CRH in females increased sensitivity to acute stress and affected adaptation to chronic stress. Exploring how these differences play out in men and women would take us closer to understanding how treatment for anxiety could best be directed. 

MQ-funded researcher Dr Bronwyn Graham is also investigating hormone differences between men and women – aiming to see if we can improve the effectiveness of anxiety treatments. Specifically, Bronwyn’s work looked into whether high levels of the sex hormones oestradiol and progesterone could explain why some women respond better to anxiety treatments than others. 

Bronwyn measured hormone variations by taking blood samples and examined whether high levels of the sex hormones influenced the response to treatments around processing fear. She found that higher levels of the hormones meant that women responded better, with fewer relapses. This research could allow for anxiety treatments to be tailored to differing hormone levels to improve their success rate.

Bronwyn’s research also opens the door for intervening early, by identifying women who have low levels of these hormones and modifying treatment to reflect this.

Biological implications and the role of hormone levels are, however, only part of the picture when looking to understand anxiety in women.

Exploring the impact of social issues

When considering gender differences in responses to stress, it is also crucial to understand the various environmental factors which could be putting women at a higher risk of developing anxiety. 

Olivia Remes’ research at the University of Cambridge – looking at 30,445 people over the age of 40 – found that women living in the most deprived areas of England are over 60 per cent more likely to experience anxiety compared to women living in richer areas. Olivia believes this could, in part, be a result of women having stronger concerns around the safety of their neighbourhoods, which reduce the chances of women making positive relationships. In comparison, the study found that no association existed for men between anxiety and deprivation – showing women to be disproportionately affected by the impact of socioeconomic difficulties.

We know that a relationship also exists between financial stress and anxiety and with women being statistically more likely to earn less than men, it could be suggested that they are at a higher risk of being affected by financial difficulty. This idea is supported by a 2016 report from the Young Women’s Trust which surveyed 4,000 young people aged 18-30 years old, found that 45 per cent of young women said it would be a big financial problem if they had to replace a large household item, compared with 39 per cent of young men. 

Looking at the impact of these issues, alongside biological factors, allows us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of anxiety and, in particular, the way it affects women. Building this wider picture around the condition increases the opportunities for intervention, offering hope to women living with anxiety.

What’s next? 

Research must continue in order to identify further opportunities for intervention and to offer women more effective, personalised treatment. High rates of anxiety in women is not an inevitability. It is only through research that we can make progress in understanding how to deal with this life-altering condition.

Last updated: 3 August 2017

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