Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, the reasons range from hormonal fluctuations to brain chemistry to upbringing to empathy.
By Melinda Beck
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, chair of the department of psychology at Yale, says one reason women are more anxious is that they tend to take responsibility for other peoples’ happiness, especially their children’s and spouse’s. “It’s kind of a Catch-22, because they can’t always do anything about them,” says Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema, author of “The Power of Women” and other books. Women also seem to have a more active “uh oh” signal in the brain that registers when they know they’ve made a mistake, according to a study published this month in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.
The “error-related negativity” (ERN) signal, discovered in 1990, is an electrical wave in the brain that can be detected with an electroencephalogram when participants in studies make errors in simple tasks. As a rule, “the more you worry, the bigger your ERN,” says psychologist Jason Moser at Michigan State University. He and his colleagues monitored the brain activity of 79 female and 70 male undergraduates while they performed simple “letter-flanking” tests (identifying the middle letter in a series of five, such as FFFFF.)
As part of this ongoing research, all the participants provided information about themselves, including filling out the “Penn State Worry Questionnaire,” a commonly used measure of anxiety. The men and women generally fared equally, but the women who were “high worriers” according to the questionnaire had far greater ERN signals when they made errors than men who were high worriers, and men or women who didn’t worry as much. As the tasks got more difficult, the anxious women made more mistakes. “Their worry seemed to get in the way of being able to process simple cognitive tasks,” Dr. Moser says.
What isn’t known is whether the large ERN signal is the cause or the effect of the excess worry, but other data suggest that the error-signal may be a biological risk factor for anxiety. One study found that siblings of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who didn’t have OCD themselves, have large ERN signals. “It’s possible that the brain signal predates their high anxiety level,” Dr. Moser says. Researchers also wonder why the male high worriers didn’t have such a pronounced ERN signal. Dr. Moser speculates that it might have been different if the test involved money or competition, rather than simple letter recognition. “It could be that the men didn’t give a hoot and the women were more conscientious,” he says.