Women are twice as prone to anxiety as men — but girls don’t start out more anxious than boys, and it’s not because women are “natural” worriers:
When it comes to our preconceived notions about women and anxiety, women are unfairly being dragged through the mud. While women are indeed more fretful than men on average right now, this difference is mostly the result of a cultural setup—one in which major social and parenting biases lead to girls becoming needlessly nervous adults. In reality, the idea that women are “naturally” twice as anxious as men is nothing more than a pernicious illusion.
In my book Nerve, I call this the “skinned knee effect”: Parents coddle girls who cry after a painful scrape but tell boys to suck it up, and this formative link between emotional outbursts and kisses from mom predisposes girls to react to unpleasant situations with “negative” feelings like anxiety later in life. On top of this, cultural biases about boys being more capable than girls also lead parents to push sons to show courage and confront their fears, while daughters are far more likely to be sheltered from life’s challenges. If little Olivia shows fear, she gets a hug; if little Oliver shows fear, he gets urged to overcome it.
The result of these parenting disparities is that by the time girls grow into young women, they’ve learned fewer effective coping strategies than their male counterparts, which translates to higher anxiety. The sexes learn to deal with fear in two very different ways: men have been conditioned to tackle problems head-on, while women have been taught to worry, ruminate, and complain to each other (hey, I’m just reporting the research) rather than actively confront challenges. These are generalizations, of course; the fact that I have always been an Olympic-caliber worrier offers us just one example of how men can fret with the best of them, and everyone knows at least one woman who appears not even to know what fear is. Still, these differences in upbringing clarify quite a bit about the gender gap in anxiety.
And it’s not just that women are actually more anxious because of cultural factors; they’re also perceived as more anxious even when they display the same emotions as men:
We have an odd tendency to label women as anxious even when they aren’t. A recent, highly revealing study showed that even in situations in which male and female subjects experience the same level of an emotion, women are consistently seen—and even see themselves—as being “more emotional” than men. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that this bias holds for anxiety as well; we buy into the fretful-women stereotypes far too often. Another report, for example, found significant differences in the way doctors respond to patients who report common stress symptoms like chest pain: Whereas men get full cardiac workups, women are more often told that they’re just stressed or anxious, and that their symptoms are in their heads.
It should be pretty clear by now that the claims about women being far more innately anxious than men are suspect, but before I depart in a blaze of justice, one final point is in order: Men are getting off much too easily in the anxiety discussion. Probably the most significant reason why women get diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men isn’t that they’re doubly fearful. It’s because anxious men are much less likely to seek psychological help.