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Anxiety: The New Young Woman's Health Crisis

Posted: December 10, 2010

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Part of the problem, say doctors, is that a woman with anxiety may fail to seek help quickly, even if she’s seriously on edge. “To her, that is normal,” says Richard A. Friedman, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “If you’re a healthy woman and you come down with the flu, you know you’re sick. You know what it’s like to feel good, and you know you feel worse now. But if you have this sickness that’s been hanging on since you were five, that’s your baseline. You believe it’s normal, and that everyone else must feel this way too.” It took Bassey Ikpi, 34, a writer and performer in Washington, DC, nine years of panic attacks and stress headaches before she finally realized that what she had was a real medical condition. “Anxiety is a very real and serious—yet treatable—disorder. I didn’t know that until I took a college-prep psych class,” she says. “All of a sudden I was like, This is me. This is what I have.”

The confusing symptoms

And when women do seek help, doctors often confuse their symptoms with those of other mental-health conditions. Kristen Nilsen, 27, of Arlington, Virginia, remembers having her first panic attack as a child. When she finally found the courage to see a doctor at age 17, she was told she had depression and was prescribed meds that didn’t ease her attacks. She wasn’t correctly diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder until she was 23, and didn’t find a medication that worked for her until four years after that. “Anxiety can be just as debilitating as a physical injury, but it’s often not given the same immediate attention that, say, a broken leg would receive,” says Nilsen. “If I could shout it from the tallest building, I would: Seek help. You deserve to live an unafraid life.”

What is “normal” anxiety?

So what is anxiety? And why are so many young women grappling with it now? “Anxiety is a normal emotion which helps us recognize real problems and solve them. In its healthy form, anxiety helps you perform at your top form when you’re adjusting to, say, a new job or a new baby,” says Terrie Moffitt, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina. “That said, in some people anxiety grows out of proportion and becomes disabling. Generally, we say anxiety is not normal when it lasts days beyond a specific stressful event, or when it interferes with a person’s life.”

The kinds of anxiety disorders

There are multiple, distinct types of anxiety disorder: The most common is social phobia, which is an extreme fear of being judged by others. There’s also panic disorder (with its trademark panic attacks), and generalized anxiety disorder, defined as persistent and unrealistic worry. But all anxiety disorders share common denominators: Unlike depression, which is marked by unshakable sadness, they feel physically more like fear, with symptoms like insomnia, heart palpitations and headaches. And they happen young: Nearly three quarters of afflicted adults develop symptoms by age 22.

Why is anxiety so common?

As for the rise in anxiety, experts point to a range of factors. “There is a sense that the world is not as safe as it used to be, and that creates a lot of anxiety,” says Leahy. In any given day, he argues, women worry about environmental hazards, their job security, the odds of their boyfriend cheating (see: Tiger and Jesse James). “There’s so much stressful news that it starts to take a toll on you,” says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, a professor of psychology at Yale University who specializes in stress and women’s health. “If I watch CNN for an hour, I [get] fidgety.”