Worrying impairs female brains: study

Depression ... often considered a women's ailment.

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

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