Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Being a woman with anxiety in America

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Like an estimated 18 percent of American adults, I have an anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as a female, I am 60 percent more likely than my male counterparts to develop an anxiety disorder during my lifetime.

Why do I think that this is important?

I have consistently paced around my anxiety, approaching it with a sense of disgust and shame. I have wondered for years why the condition is seemingly unpredictable, and if I am simply being dramatic.

I am genetically predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder. Besides this, my anxiety seems to be purely random. I am an only child, born into a middle-class family that fits the “WASP” criteria (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) in a small town in Western Massachusetts. My parents have been extremely supportive of me, and I have never witnessed any traumatic events that would have mentally scarred me.

Now that I have learned to manage my anxiety, and as I become more socially aware of the culture that surrounds us, I wonder what role society and culture has on young women’s mental health.

It is no secret that the vision of what females are expected to be in society is a ludicrous misrepresentation. Whether we would care to admit it or not, we are subconsciously impacted by these messages of cultural expectation.

These are the images – hundreds of photo-shopped, thin women forcing radiant Chiclet-white smiles from the shabby shelves of the magazine rack, reminding us that our lives pale in comparison. I feel guilty that women are losing 60 pounds “thanks to” some mysterious fad diet, as I dig my hand into a bag of potato chips on my couch. The latest prominent feminine political figure is considered crazy and selfish.

Stories like these tell us not to be daring, not to get in the way and to feel insecure because we have every reason to be. These are issues that we accept as universal truths and cultural norms. We should dress impeccably, speak softly, be sexy – but not promiscuous – be thankful and yet fear unfamiliar men.

As a young female college student, I am afraid to walk alone at night, even around campus. When I do walk around campus during odd hours, I find myself walking uncharacteristically quickly. And in some parallel universe, had I been conceived as a male, I realize that this may not have been the case.

If the correlation between anxiety and societal expectations of females seems abstract, this only supports my argument. The amount of stress placed on females to conform to societal anticipations is logically damaging to my confidence, along with the confidence of my female friends and family members.

The fact that women are being underrepresented in every aspect of life – in media portrayal, in American politics and in historical conversation, is souring. However, what is more discouraging is our apathy towards this issue.

Given these cultural factors that cause women to become overlooked members of society, it is evident that education may be the only way to alter gender roles and mitigate the role-based stress associated with them. Sex and mental health education need to be a priority, particularly in public education. Preventing rape and sexual assault from occurring or going unreported may mean providing a required course in public schools. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, along with several other anxiety disorders, women are more likely than men to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and this is often a result of rape or sexual assault.

Aside from providing adequate sex and mental health education, I have no definitive answer to decreasing anxiety and depression rates among women.

The initial step that must be taken in American society is to simply acknowledge that cultural norms cause some women to live in a virtually constant state of fear, depression and suppression. These mental health issues are personal, usually impossible to avoid and impact people in varied ways, regardless of gender.

On a personal level, I can admit that coping with an anxiety disorder requires developing a certain degree of familiarity with oneself. Women are often discouraged from becoming overly self-involved, but seeking assistance for one’s mental wellbeing is the only way to overcome the negative impacts of an anxiety disorder.

Though I am extremely fortunate, this does not make me any less likely to develop an anxiety disorder. In fact, my gender and heredity alone makes me more likely to have anxiety. For women suffering with anxiety and depression, it is tempting to oversimplify a disorder through self-blame and repression, especially with overwhelming cultural standards.

The acceptance of mental health disorders, particularly among women, needs to be a more embraced norm of American society.

Brianna Zimmerman is a Collegian contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]

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