The first time I noticed my anxiety, I wasn’t sure what it was or what to do about it. I had started feeling increasingly anxious for a while but tried to ignore or explain it away. As an adult woman in the workforce, I noticed that certain stressors triggered my anxious feeling. Sending an important email left me to overcome anxieties of, what if I say something unprofessional and mess it up? Giving an important presentation at work kept the worry mill turning for weeks. The thought of negotiating my salary turned me into an anxious ball overcome with fear of losing the opportunity altogether. And in my social life, I constantly worried about making the wrong choices, saying the wrong thing, etc. Imagining improbable scenarios started happening more frequently.
These so-called stressors showed up in higher-stakes situations at work and in social situations. As my responsibilities and ambition grew and my life became fuller, so did the opportunities for feeling anxious. I noticed a similar pattern in my female friends and realized that many of our stressors were specific to our gender.
Women have to deal with social structures that are not necessarily designed for us. We have to navigate systemic imbalances, prejudices, and sexist systems that have been in place so long they are seen as the norm. So it’s no surprise that women deal with specific anxiety triggers in our workplaces, relationships, social interactions, etc. You’ve probably been anxious about speaking up in a meeting, defending yourself against a pushy coworker or boss, negotiating pay, asking for a promotion, how to dress for work, and other situations that are less likely to be experienced by men. For example, studies have shown that women are less likely to ask for a promotion at work than men. However, further research into the matter has shown that women ask for raises as often as men but are told “no” at a higher rate. So women, even when they speak up, have a higher chance of getting shut down.
With some effort, I started identifying the sources of my anxious feelings and learned more about how I could control them and squash that anxious bag of what-ifs rolling around in my brain. It’s important to learn how to identify these stressors and how they show up for women, how they are holding us back, and how to manage them.
Types of Anxiety Stressors
Imposter syndrome is the persistent feeling and belief that you don’t deserve your success or that your wins are not due to your hard work and talent. Imposter syndrome is usually heightened in the workplace for women. According to psychotherapist Danielle Wayne LCSW, women experience anxiety and imposter syndrome in their jobs and work, specifically when these jobs go against typical gender roles.
For example, Dr. Wayne explains, “if a woman is working in an industry that men usually dominate, then the anxiety could show up more because it’s uncharted territory.” Other women do not surround her, and in many cases, she has to deal with sexism from her bosses, coworkers, and even clients. Situations like this cause her to overthink every decision and doubt herself. She may feel like she doesn’t belong, regularly question her abilities, and experience performance anxiety even when it’s unwarranted.
Gender Roles and Work/Life Balance
An increasing number of women are suffering from burnout, and at a more frequent rate. In the past year, this has been exacerbated by a global pandemic and most jobs becoming remote. Many women have to work from home while being responsible for housework, childcare, and other emotionally laborious and mentally demanding tasks and activities. In a society where caregiving falls on the women regardless of their professional obligations, as more women excel in their careers, the pressure from home increases. Women are constantly trying to balance work and home, which results in anxiety. If you spend more time on home and childcare, you worry about neglecting your career and vice versa. Working from home adds a compounded level of anxiety to the workday. The struggle to balance tasks, handle kids’ remote schooling needs, and provide meals throughout the day all with no downtime can lead to anxiety.
Due to long-outdated social and cultural norms, women are often judged more harshly than men and are expected to be polite at all times, even when their boundaries are crossed. And so, we constantly try to edit our behavior to avoid criticism or labels. We question ourselves on every decision and apologize all the time, even when no wrong has been done. We use filler words in work emails and meetings that undermine us, all in an effort to please. Saying things like “this might sound silly, but,” before sharing your ideas is a sign of your anxieties showing up to undermine you and your confidence. Also, in everyday interactions outside the workplace, women experience more anxieties. We worry about being catcalled, walking home alone at night, going on a run in the evening, being followed, etc. Some of us have learned to live with all these anxieties, but they add extra tension to our bodies and cause us to be more stressed while going through our everyday life.
Gender roles in relationships cause women to feel more anxious about their relationship status. Many women refrain from being truly sexually free because of anxieties about how they would be perceived. The timing of marital commitment differs between genders. Women get married or want to get married at an earlier age than men. This timing difference is significantly impacted by societal norms and expectations of childbearing or virtue and placed on women. These patriarchal standards give men more control over the pace of a relationship and cause women to settle for less, go against their instincts, tolerate maltreatment, and ignore their own needs. And in the dating world, are afraid to say no or sternly shut down unwanted romantic advances because of anxieties of being impolite or anxieties of retaliation.
A Generational Divide
According to Psychotherapist Rebecca McDaniel, MSW, LCSW, “In today’s world, the younger generations have more options and support to figure out what they want out of life. Many people come into my office seeking to understand what a meaningful life looks like to them.” There isn’t as much pressure to “fit into the box.” This means that younger people feel less pressure to fit into gender roles or the existing status quo. However, with freedom comes responsibility.
McDaniel points out, “the journey can be stressful,” and it is compounded by added stressors like social media, increased cost of living, and the student loan crisis, which “older generations didn’t have to worry about.” Dr. Wayne further expands on this fact, as she points out that “social media makes it easy to compare our lives to others.” So younger women feel intense and constant pressure to be successful at a young age, look a certain way, or portray a certain look or lifestyle on social media.
Ways to Deal with Anxiety
Learn to Spot it
The points above highlight hidden stressors that cause anxiety for women. Learning to spot the cause of your anxieties can be a powerful tool in your arsenal for keeping your anxiety in check. Anxiety can be disguised as stress, loss of attention, procrastination, worry, overthinking, etc. Get in the habit of pausing whenever you have these feelings and ask yourself, “why am I anxious?” “what can I do to control it?” Identifying what’s causing your anxiety empowers you and helps you know the best way to manage it.
Try Mindfulness Activities
Dr. Wayne emphasizes the usefulness of mindfulness activities. “So much of anxiety thoughts are worrying about something that could (or could not) happen.” Practicing mindfulness helps you stay in the current moment and appreciate it.
Wayne gives an example of a mindfulness practice that can bring you back to the present moment. “If you find yourself overwhelmed with anxiety, “focus on how an ice cube feels on your skin.” Breathing exercises are also a powerful tool in managing your anxiety — take deep breaths for about a minute as this will calm you.
According to McDaniel, mindfulness could be in the form of meditating, going for a walk, having a difficult conversation, etc. It is important to note what works for you as “self-care is different for each person and can change depending on the situation.”
See a therapist
According to Dr. Wayne, going to a therapist who specializes in anxiety can be very validating and helpful in getting your anxiety under control. It helps to talk it out. A therapist can help you dig deep and find the triggers to your anxiety you didn’t even know were there. Seeing a therapist can also help you learn ways to control your anxiety, avoid stressors, and take back control of your mental health.