By Kayt Sukel
For thousands of years, thanks to the Greek physician Hippocrates, philosophers and clinicians believed ailments of excessive emotion and anxiety were due to a condition called “hysteria,” derived from a “displaced or wandering uterus.” While that idea was debunked somewhere in the late 19th century, there is still a pervasive notion that only women suffer from anxiety disorders.
But it’s patently false, says Alicia Kaplan, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Allegheny Health Network in Pennsylvania who specializes in anxiety disorders.
“It is true that women get anxiety disorders about twice as often as men—and much of that is related to women’s hormones and reproductive cycles. But men certainly do get anxiety disorders,” she says. “This myth may persist because of this difference in prevalence or maybe because, culturally, women just feel more comfortable talking about feelings of anxiety. But it’s definitely a myth.”
Kaplan says scientists are learning that anxiety is often tied to hormonal changes in women. “For some women, anxiety worsens prior to menses, postpartum, or during perimenopause,” she says. “So it can be important for women to track how they feel throughout the month to see if there is that link and when they could use different coping strategies. But, again, anxiety is not limited just to women.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 40 million adults suffer from anxiety disorders, making it the most common mental illness in the United States. That means, even though women are about twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder, tens of millions of men are also struggling with conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kaplan says men often present with a medical issue that alerts their clinicians to an anxiety problem. “I’m the psychiatrist for the irritable bowel clinic at my hospital. And what I’ve seen is that men often present with some kind of gastrointestinal problem. That has a strong overlap with anxiety,” she says. “So then we treat the anxiety and both conditions get better.”
Kaplan says that, in both men and women, people have different thresholds for stress. And when life’s stresses go into overload, the result can be feelings of anxiety. She says that everyone gets anxious from time to time and some anxiety is natural to help us cope with the world around us—but one needs to worry if those feelings start to interfere with daily life.
“Some people can manage stress by just talking with a friend, exercising, watching the amount of caffeine they take, or making sure they get enough sleep,” she says. “But other people get to the point where those feelings of anxiety are causing serious distress, interfering with normal function, interfering with sleep, or causing physical symptoms. And when it gets to that point, it’s time to meet with a mental health professional.”
The good news, Kaplan says, is that anxiety is very treatable. “There are different types of cognitive therapy to work on anxious thoughts, there are relaxation techniques, and there are also medications. And all of these things are quite effective,” she says. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about anxiety. But chronic stress and anxiety affect both the mind and the body. So if you are a man or a woman, if you find you are having bad panic attacks, if you are actively avoiding certain situations because of anxiety, you are having anxiety-related stomach issues or headaches, or you see that your feelings are getting in the way of life and work, it’s something that warrants clinical attention. Because there is help available and it can really help.”
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