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Anxiety: The New Young Woman's Health Crisis
Posted: December 10, 2010
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All of these factors hit women harder than men because, experts are learning, we may be wired to worry. Just-released research from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggests that the female brain may be more sensitive to stress hormones and less able to adapt to high levels of them. We also have a well-known propensity to ruminate and let problems roll around and around in our heads, says Nolen-Hoeksema: “We’re more aware about our feelings, and we get more hung up on them than men do.” And yet another emerging theory is that our diets are having a biological impact on our anxiety levels: “A diet high in sugar and saturated fat can disrupt brain functioning,” says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, Ph.D., a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA, who researches the effects of diet on mood disorders. “That contributes to mental disorders, particularly anxiety.”
How to get relief
Thankfully, experts say there are several proven ways to soothe those feelings of panic and fear. Here, strategies to calm anxieties both extreme and everyday: . The link between exercise and improved mental health is almost irrefutable. “I’m a therapist—a ‘head guy’—and I was shocked at how effective our research showed exercise to be. It can work as well as medication,” says Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University. Beyond alleviating pent-up angst, physical activity can actually teach your brain to be anxiety-resistant. “The physical stress that working out has on the body engages a lot of the same responses that mental stress does,” says Michael Hopkins, a researcher at the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth College. “Your heart beats faster; your blood pressure goes up. Over time, exercise appears to train the body to handle those changes, so when anxiety strikes, your body says, ‘Oh, OK, this is like when we go jogging. I know how to deal with this.’” And nearly every woman Glamour interviewed agreed workouts improved her symptoms. “It releases so much of the tension I have built up in my mind,” says one student in Mooresville, North Carolina. “After a run I feel clear and at peace.”
Exercise three to four days a week
Eat more whole foods, less junk. “The vitamins, minerals and other compounds in food act almost like medications on the brain,” says Gómez-Pinilla. Australian research recently found that women who ate a whole-foods diet, with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and fish, were 3% less likely to experience anxiety. (By comparison, women on a diet high in refined, processed foods and saturated fats were 50% more prone to depression.) “Eating too much of the wrong kind of foods produces an inflammation effect that can cause disease in our brains,” says David Heber, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, have the opposite effect and fight inflammation. And foods rich in omega-3 fats (like salmon and walnuts) and those containing tryptophan (like skim milk and turkey) can be like natural Xanax when eaten on a regular basis, says Gómez-Pinilla. “When my doctor suggested I change my diet, I kind of thought, Really?” says anxiety sufferer Nilsen. “But cutting back on all the starchy fast foods I was eating and getting more fresh produce made a huge difference. I was less lethargic and emotional.”
Nix caffeine. Caffeine can also increase anxiety—and even trigger panic attacks, according to research. “Most of us sip our morning coffee and don’t notice if it makes our heart rate and blood pressure go up,” says Jonathan Abramowitz, PhD, director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But women with panic disorder are really tuned in to their body channel, and they’ve got the volume turned way up. They sense those internal changes, which feel so similar to the onset of a panic attack, and become so stressed that they actually bring one on.”