Anxiety Causes Women’s Brains To Go Into Overdrive

It’s safe to say that, right now, anxiety ranks pretty high on my list of Emotions Experienced On a Daily Basis. Which is why it was both upsetting and strangely vindicating to hear that psychologists at Michigan State University have found that the brains of women who think of themselves as anxious work harder than those of men or calm women.

In the study, college students were fitted with electrode caps (which sound and look superduper science-y) and asked to perform simple tasks like identifying the middle letter in a series of five letters like FFFFF or EEFEE. After the tests, the participants filled out a questionnaire about how much they worry. Women who identified themselves as anxious performed nearly the same as uptight men on the simple tasks, although their brains worked harder at it.

illustration by natalie dee

So, my anxious compatriots, in the Highest Brain Activity Olympics, there’s no question about who’s taking home the gold: it’s us. Unfortunately, all that cerebral exercise isn’t necessarily a good thing. When it came to performing more difficult tasks, worrisome women actually scored worse than men. Jason Moser, one of the researchers on the study, says that this can be attributed to the high levels of stress their brains are under. “Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries. As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much.”

The psychologists are now trying to determine if hormones are to blame for the increase brain activity. Estrogen has been linked to dopamine output, which in turn affects learning, mood and attention. They hope that their research will shed some light on why women tend to struggle with anxiety disorders more than men from a biochemical standpoint. Social theorists have hypothesized that women are diagnosed as anxious more frequently than men due to help-seeking habits (women are more likely to consult doctors so, statistically, should be diagnosed more often) or due to learned behaviors from their parents.

Either way, the fact that only women seem to objectively suffer is worth looking into. If women –intelligent, motivated women — are messing up due to anxiety, think about how much we stand to gain if those mistakes could be eliminated. Moser and his colleagues suggest that, in addition to traditional therapies, writing can can help women learn to empty their mind and focus on the task at hand. So get out your journals, tell your brain to chill out, and start living your life.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

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  1. I’m feeling like this right now! I have my masters thesis to finish and my wedding to plan.

    My brains are so much in overdrive that I dream more vividly too!

  2. Great article! Anxiety and its effect on women is a major health issue that is often overlooked. Obviously from the above article, it effects a woman’s ability to problem solve and increases the likelihood that they will make mistakes or misjudge a situation. Studies have also shown that anxiety negatively affects a woman’s libido and her ability to have an orgasm. I wrote an article about this posted here: that outlines this issue. It suggests five ways women can relieve their stress and live happier, healthier lives.

    • I love that the article says that more girl time leads to more orgasms, because… well… yeah.

  3. I really really want Anxiety Girl to be a real comic book hero. I would totally read that.

  4. Ugh, anxiety makes me feel like I can’t concentrate to do ANYthing correctly, and then when I can’t concentrate I get MORE anxious, and then that makes me mess things up even MORE… It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.

  5. I have the anxiety girl tshirt. In fact I had to call in to work today because I just can’t handle it today. I decided to be honest instead of feigning illness, my boss knows I suffer from depression, but I’ve never actually taken a mental health day.I thought it would be liberating to be upfront about it but now I’m feeling more anxious, like I’m proving that I’m not up to my job or that I’m unreliable

      • Yeah, it sucks, I had to have “that” awkward chat this morning about my mental health history. He was cool about it and I’m kind of upfront about my issues, but when you have a new boss you never know how they’re going to take it.

    • So I’m on a super low dose of anxiety medicine and have been on the same one for I think 5.5 years (I’m bad with drugs and if it’s upped any further I just won’t get out of bed, I’ll sleep forever, which is the opposite of the intent).

      Anyway, I’m in grad school now and my advisor seems to think that I am really chill and can handle anything, so she gave me the scariest committee person that needed to be on one of our committees, etc. Being like ‘oh yeah you can handle this, if anyone can it’s you.’ I’m also the only one who works with actual scary things (TB) and the only one who has crazy grant terms to fulfill that I can’t cause the TB facility (biosafety level three) KEEPS HAVING PROBLEMS.

      I think what I’m trying to say is that I try to get the point across but mostly I’m functional enough that she doesn’t believe me. Says the girl still in bed posting this at 10 a.m. I NEED TO GET TO LAB NOW.

      • I know what you mean. The number of people who have said to me that I’m ‘always so calm’ is incredible considering how easily I get stressed. I think I try to stay outwardly calm in the hope that it will rub off on the people around me, so they won’t get loud and pushy, which I find stressful. It certainly works with the kids, anyway! But yeah, you do end up being expected to be capable of coping with a whole lot more pressure than people who stomp or shout or cry at the drop of a hat. I guess it’s just not as obvious that we’re not coping.

  6. This article resonates with me all too well. It’s really reassuring to know that others are going through the same kind of thing

  7. I have to agree that writing is a great way to work through stuff.

    Also, “Social theorists have hypothesized that women are diagnosed as anxious more frequently than men … due to learned behaviors from their parents” is confusing to me. Men are influenced by their parents too, why wouldn’t their anxiety be connected to them, too? What kind of learned behaviors are we talking about?

    • how the father behaves vs how the mother behaves, the female role and male role- the “appropriate” male response and the appropriate female response; the subconscious foundation for all of these begins with the development of the child in the household

  8. Relevant. Sometimes I can actually feel my brain overheat like a laptop that’s running too many programs at once. (Too nerdy?)

    For the record, I have GAD. I’m kind of over hiding it or blaming it on my own failures, which only took two years of counseling to learn to do.

  9. I am supposed to be an intelligent person in terms of academic ability, but at the moment I am slightly concerned that I am taking the absent minded genius concept to extremes – in relation to the absent mindedness rather than the genius, unfortunately. It’s actually kind of good to know that my pesky (severe, chronic, other fun adjectives which basically mean I’m fucked) anxiety disorder(s) explain this and I’m not just developing dementia at the age of 27.


  10. Do you have a link to the paper? I am interested in reading it. I’m wondering if they were told what the experiment was for ahead of time. It is frequently shown that if you inform research participants that you are measuring certain emotions, people will think about them more and then naturally find ways to include them in their report.

    So, yes. A link to the paper please. I’d love to read it. :)

  11. Please can you provide a link to the paper? There are lots of details in the article that are missing, like, what were research participants told leading into the test.

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