By now we know that there is no single cause of anxiety. Research has shown everything from environmental factors like daily stress to biological factors like genetics and internal imbalances contribute to long-term, debilitating worry. No one knows this better than Andrea Petersen, writer and author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. Inspired by her own experience with the disorder, Petersen set out to learn more about its origins. What she found was startling. "Women are about twice as likely as men to develop [an anxiety disorder], and women's illnesses generally last longer, have more severe symptoms, and are more disabling," she wrote. In fact, she goes as far as to say that "there is no greater risk factor for anxiety disorders than being born female."
In an interview with Science of Us, Petersen discussed the possible reasons behind this gender disparity. "There are several hypotheses—there's some evidence that hormonal factors come into play, that women's fluctuating levels of estrogen may contribute—but the most interesting and most robust science is looking at the social factors, how little boys and little girls are raised and the differences there, and how those contribute to the greater risk for women to later develop anxiety disorders," Petersen said. "So there's a whole body of dispiriting research showing how boys are much more likely to be encouraged to be independent, to be assertive, where girls are much more likely to be dissuaded from that behavior."
She cites a Canadian researcher who conducted studies to learn more about how parenting styles differ between gender. In one, the researcher asked parents to teach their children to slide down a pole connecting the play structure to the ground. Within a few attempts, it was clear that parents were much more cautious when it came to girls. "Boys were much more likely to be encouraged to be independent, while girls were much more likely to be cautioned about safety, about danger. Even though boys and girls had the same skill level—both boys and girls were equally adept at actually using the equipment—the way parents treated them was very different, to the point where even when boys actually asked for help, parents said no."
Although it's rarely a conscious behavior on the parents' part, Petersen says it can create significant issues over time. "So while this kind of parenting may help protect girls physically, the research suggests that it also contributes to this feeling of vulnerability, that the world is a dangerous place. Because the message that it sends to girls—encouraging them to be very cautious and always highlighting safety and danger—is that the world is a dangerous place, and that they can't cope on their own. And that feeling of vulnerability of course is a core belief of anxiety as well." Anyone who has experience with anxiety knows this to be true.
Before you blame your parents (and the rest of society) for perpetuating gender stereotypes, remember the complexity we mentioned earlier. Individual cases of anxiety differ, as do the sources and triggers. With that being said, these socialization patterns could account for women's susceptibility to anxiety. After all, what you learn when you're young, whether consciously or unconsciously, has a real effect on your adulthood.