Protecting Young Women from Anxiety

Last year I spent some time helping a high school girl (let’s call her Katya) with her writing. Katya is an excellent writer, college-bound, but at the beginning of her critical junior year, she choked with anxiety and didn’t turn in a major paper for her honors English class. And got a D for the first semester.

As a family friend, I was enlisted to help build up Katya’s confidence, calm her anxiety, and boost her writing skills. Believe me, I felt a great deal of empathy for Katya. I remembered all too clearly my own teenage years, when writing a term paper was a matter of hacking my way through thickets of negative thoughts, quicksands of panic and swamps of self-doubt. Sometimes I would work so hard at writing a major paper that I would practically have a nervous breakdown.

It appears that Katya’s and my experience may have been due to a quirk of the teenage female brain. In a research study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, Michigan State University researchers have discovered that the brains of anxious girls work much harder than those of anxious boys, making them prone to burnout and lower levels of performance.

The study found that college-age women who identified themselves as big worriers tended to have high levels of brain activity when they made mistakes. Even though the scores for both stressed females and males were about the same, women’s brains had to work harder. As the test became more difficult, the more anxious women did worse on the task, meaning anxiety and stress was affecting the girls’ performance.

“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” said Jason Moser, the lead investigator. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school.”

And, it seems, set the stage for anxiety later in life. According to the National Institutes of Health, women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime (that’s nearly double the rate of men). And women also have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.

I realize that we are getting into touchy waters here, as in the past women have been negatively stereotyped as anxious and even hysterical. Yet the statistics are there—women are not only more likely to develop anxiety, but also depression and other mental/emotional disorders. Whatever the cause, it seems we need to address these issues and figure out how to protect young girls and women from these risks. To quote Huffington Post Editor Emma Gray in “The Conversation We Need to Have About Women and Anxiety”: “When we’ve reached a point where 23 percent of American women are all struggling with the same demons, it’s time to start talking about them and confronting them – collectively.”

So what is the cause of the high rates of anxiety in women? Some experts hypothesize that this difference arises from a combination of hormonal fluctuations, brain chemistry and upbringing. Others believe the cause is social stresses that women experience, such as lower wages, balancing home and career, and the constant measuring up to images of perfection in the media and advertising.

In the University of Michigan study, Jason Moser says he is “investigating whether estrogen, a hormone more common in women, may be responsible for the increased brain response. Estrogen is known to affect the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in learning and processing mistakes in the front part of the brain.”

This comment about dopamine rings a bell. In the research on the Transcendental Meditation technique, it’s been found that the hormones dopamine and serotonin are secreted during the practice of TM, creating what researchers call “the rest and fulfillment response” that is the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response.

Research also shows that the TM technique allows the mind to effortlessly settle inward beyond worries and agitation. The body gains a deep state of relaxation and the mind becomes more serene. The whole physiology spontaneously shifts into a more balanced, harmonious style of functioning that is the extreme opposite of the stress response. Biochemicals in the bloodstream associated with tension and anxiety—such as cortisol and plasma lactate—are significantly reduced, and the brain functions with greater coherence.

Thousands of women are finding relief from anxiety through the regular practice of TM. Take Dana Farley, now 22, who suffered from severe dyslexia and anxiety as a student.  “I had a lot of insecurities when it came to doing the homework or asking questions in class. TM basically slowed things down for me and I don’t have all these negative thoughts in my head when I’m doing a task. I’m not putting myself down all the time.”

After starting TM as a high school student, Dana was so struck by the changes she experienced that she made a feature film, Beyond the Noise: My Transcendental Meditation Journey to help other teenagers, especially girls, find relief from their anxieties. Now a graduate of Bucknell University, she says about her film, “I had been dealing with typical teenage stuff—the usual anxieties and depressions that so many teens are trying to deal with. I also grew up with a learning disability that created its own intense stress. By creating this documentary I wanted to bring awareness to the negative things that teens are experiencing, and show how effective TM can be in helping people overcome stress and become more natural.”

Like Dana, I have my own happy ending. I started meditating at age 19, and slowly the anxiety dropped off along with the anxiety and negative thoughts that were causing my brain to struggle so hard while writing.

Katya’s story, too, had a happy ending—with a great deal of hard work and many weekends spent struggling, she made up the missing paper, raised her grade for the first semester to a B and finished the second semester trailing clouds of glory with a solid A. I was so proud of her, but I couldn’t help wishing that she, too, would take the steps to learn and practice TM, to protect her brain from stress and anxiety, and so she can get those As with less struggle and angst.

As Dr. William Stixrud, a neuropsychologist from Washington, D.C., who makes his living helping kids with depression, ADHD and other learning disorders says, “Because we know that teenage girls are sculpting their adult brain by how they use it in their teen years, it’s especially important that they take advantage of tools like TM to help reduce their level of stress and anxiety.”

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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