Silent Distress- by Monique Valle
The lives and experiences of women are so diverse and dissimilar; yet, among and between women, there is a sense of connection and an unspoken understanding. Despite our vastly unique experiences, we still share a repressive history (and present) that tells us to stay silent and small. When we speak our truth, we are often times belittled and told we are “too sensitive” or that we need to “stay quiet” and “toughen up.” But what would happen if we all consciously knew how common our silent suffering was?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders that affect 40 million adults every year within the United States and is the most prevalent mental health disorder worldwide (ADAA, 2016; Dowbiggin, 2009). A significant risk factor for anxiety is simply being born female. Even without looking at the immense evidence to support this claim, it is quite easy to gesture vaguely at the world to confirm why women are more prone to anxiety disorders: societal and institutional factors, hormonal complications, all attributes of inequality, and the threat and prevalence of violence, rape, and abuse.
Understandably, anxiety presents itself quite differently across the sexes. For men, anxiety manifests itself through the emotions of shame, irritability, and anger (AnxietyBC, 2015). Testosterone in men essentially acts as a protective agent against anxiety, reducing amygdala activity during fight-or-flight responses, adjusting the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, and increasing the activity of GABA and serotonin: neurotransmitters that are quite minimal in anxious people (AnxietyBC, 2015).
In contrast, due to estrogen and progesterone in women, the fight-or-flight response is activated more readily and lasts longer, contributing to the emotional distress and just all around fun experience of prolonged anxiety (ADAA, 2016). To add to all of this, fluctuations in hormones across the phases of life put women further at risk for anxiety (Lindberg, 2017). What you or others may be feeling is not all in your heads and is much more common than it may feel. Nevertheless, sharing these experiences with one another can actually make us feel better.
Various studies have shown the health benefits through a sense of belonging, social networks, and intimate friendships. One study found that friendships promote adults’ psychological resilience (British Psychological Society, 2017). Another study at UCLA found that women’s reactions to stress act as an adaptive protectant to “tend and befriend” (Taylor et al., 2000). Women are genetically attuned to reach out through friendships as oxytocin is released after the fight-or-flight response, countering the negative effects of stress and producing a sense of calm (Taylor et al., 2000). While it may seem that our bodies and our minds set us up for all of this psychological distress you may be feeling, this can also prompt us to reach out for social resources and support. If you or someone you know is struggling, an empowering and meaningful step is just to start a conversation. Below is a list of resources that can assist in giving a voice to this silent suffering, so many of us endure.
ADAA: Anxiety and depression association of America. (2016). Facts & statistics. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
ADAA: Anxiety and depression association of America. (2016). Women & anxiety, depression, and co-occurring disorders. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/1women-5c-s-men_22308281%20(1).pdf
AnxietyBC: Anxiety disorders association of British Columbia. (2015). Men and anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.anxietybc.com/resources/article/men-and-anxiety
British Psychological Society. (2017, April 20). That’s what friends are for. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170420113921.htm
Dowbiggin, I. R. (2009, July). High anxieties: The social construction of anxiety disorders. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54(7), 429-436.
Lindberg, S. (2017, November 16). Why anxiety is especially difficult for a woman. Livestrong. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/13683446-why-anxiety-is-especially-difficult-for-a-woman/
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429.
Monique Valle is the author of this article. She is a CSUF graduate student studying counseling psychology and emphasizes women's issues in her work. Follow her on instagram @moniqueadrienne
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