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Women and mental health

Why are women more vulnerable to mood and anxiety disorders?

Women experience depression about twice as often as men. About one in every eight women can expect to develop the illness during their lifetime. Women also outnumber men in generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disparity in vulnerability to mental disorders between men and women is caused by both biological differences and social pressures.

Women Mental Health.

Brain circuitry

Researchers have found that hormones affect the brain chemistry that controls emotions and mood. Cycling levels of stress-sensitive female hormones may account for the special vulnerability of women to mood and anxiety disorders. Women's and men's brains are wired differently with different emotional circuitry for safety and fear, writes Louann Brizendine, MD, author of The Female Brain. Scans show that women's brains activate more than men's in anticipation of danger.

"Because of her highly responsive stress trigger, a woman becomes anxious much more quickly than a man does. This trait evolved to allow her to respond quickly to protect her children." Evolutionary psychologists have also found that women have a greater ability to identify and feel the emotions of others, resulting in increased psychological sensitivity.

Social factors

Women lead stressful lives as they take on multiple roles in the home and at work. Many are raising children alone and caring for aging parents.

The expectations of their workplace, family members and society may contribute to low self-esteem, a sense of having little control over their lives, and frequent anxiety. Women are expected to compete with men professionally, excel as a mother and maintain a youthful, fit and attractive appearance. Women tend to be more emotionally invested in interpersonal relationships than men are. So they suffer from the struggles and sorrows in their own lives and also in the lives of their friends and family members.

Women tend to internalize their emotions to a greater degree than men do and blame themselves for failure, which leads to depression. Men are more likely to blame others, which leads to anger. Many women learned from a young age that to be assertive and independent was to be unfeminine. Even women raised to have high expectations find that they still have less control and fewer rewards than men, and their accomplishments are often undervalued.

But do the numbers tell the whole story?

Is the difference in mental health between men and women actually as great as it appears to be? It's true that fewer men than women are diagnosed and treated for mood and anxiety disorders. But men are more likely to stay below the radar of the mental health system. Many men do not recognize, acknowledge, or seek help for their depression. When they do seek medical attention, they may be more willing to report fatigue, irritability and sleep disturbances than feelings of sadness, worthlessness and guilt. So, mood disorders may be misdiagnosed.

Women may be more vulnerable to mental health problems, but they are also more likely to be in touch with their emotions and to seek out help.

How to take care of yourself when you’re the caregiver

“I don’t understand what’s he’s going through,” says Paula, whose husband Jim is struggling with depression. “I’m frustrated and confused. Sometimes I feel angry and then guilty. Sometimes I’m just exhausted from it all.”

If your loved one is living with a mood disorder, you may try so hard to take care of them that you stop taking care of yourself. It happens to the most caring of caregivers. Jim’s depression has impacted his relationships with his wife and his children. He’s lost his job and finances are a problem. Paula has stepped up to try to fulfill his role, but she’s feeling burdened and burned out. “We have expectations of our loved ones and when they’re not able to do their part, it takes a toll on the relationship or the whole family,” says Dr. Richard Shaw, Chair, Graduate Department of Counseling, George Fox University. “The caregiver may overcompensate and find themself trying to fix everything.” Mike’s wife Jan is living with bipolar disorder and her behavior has eroded his trust. He wonders, “How can I get some control? When will it end?” He feels drained and anxious. Paula and Mike need to accept that there will be ups and downs, times when they may need to put things on hold.

The person who’s caring for someone who is ill must set healthy boundaries with that person. It’s ok to tell them that they must do their part by taking their medications, seeing their doctor, showing up for family events and being appropriate with you and others. You must take care to safeguard your own mental health for your sake and your loved one’s. “I believe health rubs off,” says Dr. Shaw. “If you’re holding onto health, it will have an impact on the other person."

If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll have nothing to give to the person who needs you.

Tips for taking care of yourself

  • Learn all you can about your loved one’s illness.

  • Talk to people: a friend or family member, your pastor.

  • Vent, let them hug you; pray for you.

  • They can handle it; your loved one may not be able to.

  • Ask someone else to spend time with him/her while you take a break.

  • Consider personal therapy for yourself.

  • Join a support group for friends and family members.

  • Take part in social activities.

  • Volunteer: Make a difference at a local school or senior center.

  • Engage in activities that keep your mind occupied, express your creativity, feed your soul.

Talking to Depression:

Simple Ways to Connect When Someone in Your Life is Depressed

Some words can help, others can hurt.

One in every 10 Americans is living with depression every year. Someone we're close to is going to be among them.

In Talking to Depression, author Claudia Straus teaches us to support the loved one, friend or coworker who is suffering. She shows us, with practical advice, how to make a difference.

You want to help, and you're afraid of making things worse. It can be difficult to know how to communicate with someone who is depressed. Strauss helps us to understand, to a degree, what they're going through: the despair, hopelessness, isolation and lack of energy. She offers practical suggestions for caring, effective ways to help them get through it. "Support from friends and family is a vital part of the recovery process," she says.

Strauss, a communication consultant and educator, says that whether or not the person is getting professional help, you can still learn ways to contribute to their recovery. She advises, though, that you encourage them to seek medical treatment.

She shows us, with examples, how to set boundaries and how to avoid our own burnout, with questions such as "How about if we talk at 3 p.m. tomorrow and get together for coffee Friday at 5:30?" She suggests using cards, voice mail or email messages to tell them you're thinking of them. She also offers important advice about what to do if you think he or she is considering suicide.

"The greatest gift you can give," she says, "is to help them retrieve themselves: their identity, their self-respect, their dreams, their self-confidence, their humor and their sense of connection." She shows us how.