Women Wired For Worry
September 2, 2003
(Cox News Service) -- Men, science is on your side.
Recent research may confirm the long-standing male contention that women are worrywarts. But it also shows that women can't help it; they're just built that way.
Scientists have identified a genetic factor that appears to influence anxiety in women. Research conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that the hormone estrogen lowers the level of COMT -- an enzyme that helps temper stress -- in the brain. People can inherit various forms of the COMT gene, which in turn can leave them more susceptible to anxiety, the study found.
The study, which appeared in the March issue of Psychiatric Genetics, was conducted by the institute to shed more light on the genetic origins of anxiety, which can sometimes be a warning sign for developing alcoholism, said NIAAA director Dr. T. K. Li.
Li said in a release about the study that it has broader applications than just alcoholism, as it not only suggests why women may be more high-strung than men, but could also be helpful in other areas of psychiatry.
"Such multidimensional studies that integrate neurogenetics, behavioral science and the study of the brain are vital to increasing our fundamental knowledge of the genes related to complex psychiatric disorders," he said.
What does the average person worry about?
According to a new survey conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, adults are most concerned about their finances, followed by concerns about a loved one dying and then about their own death. In the survey, women reported only slightly higher levels of anxiety than men. However, women were twice as likely as men to worry about something for one week or longer and three times more likely than men to worry about their own death.
And the kids?
Laurel Zuber, a counselor at McGregor Junior High School in Waco, said social issues dominate the concerns of students there. She said kids at both the junior high and high school level aren't really focusing too much on big-picture concerns just yet.
"They're mainly worried about how others are treating them," she said. "They might think about world peace and talk about it in class, but social interactions are the most important thing to them at this age."
Zuber said grades are probably the next biggest concern for the teens at her school, not a struggling national economy. At the high school level, where she counseled for seven years in McGregor, students were primarily worried -- and often upset - about things like school rules, particularly the dress code, Zuber said.
The clinical term for excessive worrying is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, according to Norman Fluet, clinical psychologist and head of psychology of Scott & White in Waco. He said the disorder is characterized by uptight behavior, an inability to stop worrying and an obsession with events that are not likely to happen. As an example, he cited fear of flying as an event that causes some people a great amount of anxiety, when in reality, statistics have shown time and again that flying is a much safer form of travel than driving long distances.
Being a worrier is not all bad, depending on the degree to which one worries, Fluet said. Worry can help facilitate performance in some cases, such as taking a test, he said.
"The added anxiety may help some people study more because they want to do well on the test," he said. "But when anxiety comes in the form of, 'If I don't make an A on this test I'm going to be in big trouble,' it's no longer productive at that point."
As for which sex worries more, Fluet said it's been his experience that women are more willing to acknowledge that a problem exists and that they are more likely than a man to seek counseling.
The fine line between controlling worry and having it control you, according to Fluet, is what determines when someone may need to seek professional help to deal with their anxiety.
According to the ADAA, anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the United States, with more than 19 million men and women having anxiety so frequent, intense, and uncontrollable that it hinders the way they lead their lives.
"In general, when worry is impacting your life to the point that you are not able to do the things you want to do anymore, it's time to get help," he said.