Why Do Women Suffer More From Stress?

Statistically, women suffer from depression and anxiety disorders more frequently than men. The only exception to this is social anxiety disorder, which seems to occur in equal numbers regardless of sex. For all other forms of anxiety, including everything from acute stressors to diagnosed anxiety disorders, women tend to be the forerunners.

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. They can increase the risk of diseases, including heart disease, which kills 17.7 million people globally every year. They can also increase the risk of depression and suicide in people who suffer from them and can prevent people from being able to function on a day-to-day basis. Mental illness can dramatically affect your standard of living.

While we know that women suffer from anxiety more frequently than men, the reasons why are still unclear. It’s most likely that there is a combination of nature and nurture at the heart of it, meaning that some factors are biological and some are environmental. Most studies will not be able to account for all of the influences, but we can consider them from a broad perspective.


Research shows that women tend to have more hormonal fluctuations than men do. Some of the hormones that surge during pregnancy, for example, are correlated with an increased tendency to develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is classified as perinatal OCD. Hormonal fluctuations may contribute to an increased level of stress, but they don’t necessarily account for the increased frequency of lifelong anxiety diagnoses in women.

There do appear to be some genetic factors. Based on studies of twins and family records, women are more likely to have stress and anxiety issues. These studies are the best indicators we have that some stress is due to a difference between the sexes and rather than environmental conditions.


A key indicator that environment influences stress is that prevalence differs between cultures. Women in North America have been found to be more stressed than women in other cultures, despite generally having better access to the resources to create what many would consider relatively more comfortable lives for themselves.

This cultural difference could be explained by the fact that stress is often measured by Western standards, so it’s possible this is a false positive result. However, I believe it’s still fair to assume that the environment a person is in can contribute to their stress levels.

Today, most women still perform the majority of the unpaid work at home, despite joining or wanting to join the workforce. Even as more women enter the workforce, they is often an expectation that they will continue to take responsibility for housework.

Of course, it’s a difficult feat to keep up a home and a career without one interfering with the other. Women are also still generally expected to be caretakers – the ones responsible for remembering birthdays and anniversaries, sending out cards and making sure everyone in the family is fed and taken care of.

Many women do attest to having a caretaker mentality, though it’s hard to say if this is innate or created from societal expectations. While every woman is different, the responsibility and expectation can take an emotional toll. And while it’s becoming more common for men to take on the same at-home responsibilities as women, I don’t believe that it is expected of men in the same way.

The mental health gap between men and women may be partially biological, but it doesn’t have to be as wide as it is. Ultimately, working toward a more equitable environment will benefit everyone.

On the Importance of Mental Health to Women’s Health

Until recently, the main images that would show up in my head when I thought of ‘women’s health’ would be gynaecological exams, menstrual cramps and pregnancy. I didn’t think, for example, of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) or of postpartum depression. Mental health wasn’t something I automatically associated with women’s health – that is, until I began to struggle with debilitating mental health issues myself. Those issues negatively affected my overall wellbeing and disrupted my whole life.

Mental health issues occur in both sexes, but in my experience as a woman with mental health issues, and reading stories of other women like me, I believe that gender plays a major role in the way mental health issues are experienced by individuals. Stigma around mental health is, unfortunately, still rampant among both men and women, and social constructs of men being physically and mentally ‘stronger’ than women – the ‘fragile sex’ – can deeply hurt those of all genders. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that for women in particular, these social constructs can put their experiences at risk of being belittled as simply a “woman’s issue” instead of a legitimate health issue – an obstacle I’ve come up against myself time and time again. 

Many symptoms of anxiety and depression throughout my life have been ‘blamed’ on my sex: my short temper and irritability as a teenager – common symptoms of depression among teens – were “just PMS”, and my depressive moods were “just hormones”. I kept silent about the anxiety I’d been dealing with for over 16 years for fear of being seen as “weak” (weaker than already being a woman, that is) or as a “drama queen”.

Women who struggle with PMDD, for example, can suffer for years without having their disorder diagnosed and their condition taken seriously as something more than ‘just’ pre-menstrual syndrome. Women who suffer with addictive disorders also struggle as they are less likely than men to seek help for alcohol dependence.

Other facts confirm just how much mental health can affect women’s overall health, such as the fact that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenage girls worldwide, and that women are more at risk of developing anxiety and depressive disorders than men. And although biology (what psychology refers to as “nature”) may have something to do with women’s predisposition to mental health issues, the environment women are raised and live in (“nurture”) can also play an important role. Environmental triggers range from a constant fear of falling victim to sexual harassment and assault to the negative impacts of social media on girls’ and women’s views of their bodies and their sexuality.

Despite having struggled with mental health issues at some level since childhood, it has only been in the last year that I began to see and validate those issues as serious and deserving of help. In therapy, I have been working through dealing with long-held feelings of guilt I have associated with my anxiety and depression. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that growing up I wanted to overcompensate for being ‘fragile’: I wanted to be seen and treated as ‘strong’ and to be respected by others just as my male counterparts were. Perhaps I believed that admitting, especially publicly, that I struggled with anxiety and depression would give others even more ammunition to see me and treat me as fragile and less-than. Today, I’m in the process of accepting my mental health issues – I take medication, go to therapy, and have seen doctors and psychiatrists.

For the first time in my life, I’m beginning to see these issues not as weaknesses, but as the medical conditions they really are. I’m beginning to see that if anything, dealing with them for most of my life has made me a stronger, not weaker, woman.

Mental health should become as common as pregnancy and menstrual cramps in conversations about women’s health – there can be no women’s health without mental health. In these conversation, though, it’s important to acknowledge that although women can have a greater biological predisposition to mental health issues, this fact says absolutely nothing about the character and the strength of women. Our biology can contribute to the high incidence of anxiety and depression among our sex, but by no means does it limit our capabilities or our right to have our health issues taken seriously by medical professionals and the people in our lives.

We Need to Talk About Mental Health

Mental Health Month is celebrated in May here in the United States, but mental health is something we should be talking about all year round. This year’s World Health Day took place on April 7th and focused on the important issue of depression. On this occasion, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a one year campaign titled “Depression: let’s talk”.

Depression and other mental health conditions can, at their worst, lead to suicide. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), suicide “is the second-leading cause of death among adolescent girls” worldwide. The prevalence of both depressive and anxiety disorders is also higher among women than men around the world.

I am one of those women who struggles with mental health. I visited a psychologist for the first time when I was just 8 years old, as my generalized and social anxiety issues began to develop. I am now 23, and anxiety is still something I struggle with on a practically daily-basis, despite now going to therapy and taking medication.

But for most of the 16 years I’ve lived with anxiety, I’ve struggled mostly alone, in silence, without understanding well what was happening in my own brain – a reality unfortunately too common for most people who struggle with some type of mental disorder. The WHO states that even in developed countries, 50% of people who suffer from depression don’t get treatment for their disorder. Governments also lack investment in mental health: just 3% of their budgets worldwide go to mental health services.

A big misconception about mental health issues is that they are strictly in a person’s mind and don’t make them physically sick – but that is far from true. During an anxiety attack for example, I feel extremely nauseous, I can’t eat even if I’m hungry, my muscles become tense, and I get terrible headaches. Mental health issues are never a person’s choice – they are disorders, and can affect anyone, at any age, anywhere in the world.

Anxiety and depressive disorders are not simply being stressed or sad. They manifest themselves even when life is going well. My worst anxiety attack ever happened when I was in a car with my parents going on a trip, and my most recent one, when I was riding the same train I ride since January going to work. These episodes can happen even without a logical reason for my body’s reaction, and that’s what makes mental health issues so hard to live with.

Mental health should be prioritized just as much as physical health – after all, isn’t the brain part of our bodies too? It’s a clichéd phrase, but one I’ve learned, the hard way, to be true: self-care isn’t selfish. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding facing my anxiety issues, thinking that if I focused my energy on helping others, I’d be “cured” somehow. Even though I still love helping others, I’ve learned that I can’t do that unless I help myself and allow myself to be helped.

I still have a long road ahead of me learning how to take care of myself, beginning a new therapy, and getting a more definitive diagnosis. But taking this first step of acknowledging that I do have mental health issues that are deeply affecting my life, breaking my silence about it, and reaching out for help is a good place to start the life-long road of recovery.

If you are struggling with mental health issues, especially suicidal thoughts or actions, or know someone who might be, please do not hesitate in reaching out for help. If you live in the United States you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), Mental Health America, and NAMI for help and resources.

The Global Mental Health Burden

It is estimated that 1 in 4 people globally will be affected by mental or neurological disorders in their lifetime. Yet, the magnitude of mental illness is not matched by the amount of resources and awareness that the burden demands.

Mental illnesses affect women and men differently. The prevalence of mental health issues in women is directly related to the frequency and severity of gender discrimination, violence against women, socioeconomic disadvantage, and subordinate social status.

Depression, predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women as it is in men, affecting women at a rate of 41.9% and men at 29.3%. Additionally, 80% of people affected by violent conflicts, natural disasters, and displacement are women and children, which also contributes to greater trauma and stress. In a lifetime, violence against women ranges from 16% to 50%, and at least 1 in 5 women will suffer from rape or attempted rape.

Gender stereotypes of greater emotional issues and sensitivity in women prevent some women from seeking treatment or serve as a barrier to accurate diagnosis and treatment. In fact, women are prescribed mood-altering psychotropic drugs at a higher rate than men. Women also report receiving insensitive care in relation to trauma, such as victim-blaming for sexual assault, which serves as another barrier to accessing treatment.

Alleviating the burden of mental illness in women will greatly reduce the burden of global mental health, especially for depressive disorders. However, before eliminating gender bias in mental health care, countries worldwide must first implement stronger mental health services overall. Currently, countries face many barriers to implementing such programs, including stigmatization, lack of financial resources, and shortages of trained professionals.

Some mental disorders can be prevented while most can be properly treated, but countries must invest the time and resources to this cause. The World Health Organization reports that 40% of countries do not have a mental health policy and over 30% do not have mental health programs. Ignoring the growing burden of global mental health will have severe social and economic consequences worldwide, especially if women and men continue to be misdiagnosed and mistreated.

Cover photo credit: Darcy Adelaide/Flickr (Creative Commons)