Is anxiety a women’s issue?
I have worked with male and female clients alike on their issues of anxiety. Many of their thoughts and feelings share similarities, and many of them are unrelated to their gender or sex. However, I have also come to notice that many of the ways anxiety can take hold in women can be attributed to wider female issues around sexism and our Western culture.
Sexism in our society
Although many great leaps and bounds have been made in terms of achieving a balance between the genders in our society, there are still many hurdles left. Women still find issues breaking through the glass ceiling, still struggle to achieve equal pay, still find themselves to be the main carers of their children, whether through choice or otherwise.
Common ideas around what an ‘ideal woman’ should be still persist, even if on the surface they are outdated: some descriptions might include slim, quiet, caring and passive.
‘Feminism’ is still a dirty word to a lot of people. How can there be a problem with a concept that simply stands for equality? The answer is because it means changing the status quo, despite all the efforts thus far.
How does this impact women?
The question is, if we are living in a society where there are still differences between how men and women are valued, how does this impact on the well-being of women?
For example, take my client Elaine* - a mature student and mother of two. She came to see me because she found that she was completely unable to speak in her university seminar groups, and she was becoming very concerned that this would harm her in her future career.
Whenever the tutor asked her a question, she was overcome with fright, her face was red, she started sweating. She felt frozen and stunned and often couldn’t utter a single word.
By the time she came to see me, she was so embarrassed by her own inability to speak that she was seriously considering leaving the course and abandoning her plans.
In our sessions together, we explored the different thoughts and feelings that Elaine experienced when she was being called on to speak. It quickly became clear that she was struggling to imagine that anything she could say would be correct. In her mind, she could only say things that were either wrong or stupid, despite the fact that she already had a good grasp of the subject.
Gradually, Elaine began to speak about how, as a child, she had been told that she couldn’t be as clever as her male siblings, or her father. Although she was talented at school, it was her brothers who were given the accolades, and the attention. It was common in her house for her brothers to dominate the conversation around the dinner table, and for them to be allowed to do and say things that she would never be allowed to.
Elaine had then married a man with similar traits, and over their 15 years of marriage, he had come to take charge, and make all of their decisions. Although he had supported her to start her course, it was still on the basis that she put him and the family first.
Without knowing it, Elaine had become so used to taking a passive, silenced role in her house, that when she finally began to follow her dreams and start a new course of study, she had no personal resources to help her speak up and to value her own opinions.
Shifting our mindsets
Once Elaine became aware of where her fears were coming from, she was able to take small steps in her daily life to shift her mindset, and start to rebuild her self-esteem. She practised saying ‘no’ more often, whereas before she would often say yes to helping others because she thought should. She carved out personal time when she couldn’t be disturbed for matters around the house.
At a family gathering, she confided in some cousins all about her new studies and her hopes and dreams for the future. While previously she would have assumed that they would have thought she was silly, or even arrogant for trying to get ‘above herself’, she was amazed to find that she received a lot of praise and goodwill for her endeavours.
All of these small shifts in her daily life gave her the courage and confidence to talk more, and feel heard and understood. In time, this translated into her seminar sessions, and she found herself able to speak up and feel like a worthwhile part of the group.
This is just one example of how the messages we are given growing up or in our daily lives can impact how we see ourselves and in turn, how we act around others. There are many more ways in which an inherent bias against women in our culture can leave otherwise successful and strong women floundering in certain circumstances, or suffering from anxieties they may not have realised they had.
Counselling can help to unravel what experiences and messages have been part of your life, helping you to shift the balance towards feeling and behaving as an equal member of society, with equal desire and entitlement to be heard.
*All client details have been anonymised.
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