Record Anxiety Levels Over Terrorism

Men, Women Have Different Ways of Dealing With Worry

 

Feb. 21, 2003 -- Look around you: Fights in hardware stores over duct tape. Cops patrolling Wall Street and Main Street in gear that looks like it came from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. A new spike in anxiety, perhaps even in your own home, not felt since the nail-biting days of Sept. 11.

Nearly half of all Americans admit in a recent Gallup survey to being "very" or "somewhat" worried that they will personally become a victim of terrorism. But women are twice as likely as men to report the highest levels of anxiety.

"People who are more vulnerable to this kind of anxiety are those who take more responsibility for dependents -- and women usually take care of the babies," says Rosalind Chait Barnett, PhD, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and the author of six books, including Gender and Stress. "It's not only their own well-being they're worried about, but the well-being of all of those who depend on them."

It's not that the guys don't care. But while they fight over building supplies and wear riot gear, a nation of women -- particularly mothers -- are flooding psychological centers with questions. They're sharing over coffee their visions of a nerve gas attack while they were shopping. And they're doing what they historically have done when crisis occurs: Seemingly out-worry men, and paying their price for it.

"Both men and women may have the same level of anxiety now, but they tend to express it differently," Barnett tells WebMD. "In times of anxiety, we know men have higher levels of risk-taking behavior such as alcoholism. Men act it out, women become more depressed. They become more self-critical. They develop more physical symptoms and take more trips to the doctor."

Mostly, they admit their terror more readily, says Michael Nuccitelli, PhD, director of SLS Health, a psychological treatment center in Brewster, N.Y. "From early on, women are brought up to take into considerations other people's feelings," he tells WebMD. "They tend to have more emotion and are more likely to be honest about feeling those emotions."

In his own survey done one month after the World Trade Center attack -- when terror anxiety was last at levels now reached -- Nuccitelli found that women admitted to higher levels of overall post-Sept. 11 trauma in all age groups except in ages 50-59, sometimes four times as often. He also found:

  • Almost half of the women and virtually no men reported being fearful of flying
  • One in three women and virtually no men said they were worried about further terror attacks
  • One in three women reported terrorist-related nightmares. No men did.
  • Four in 10 women avoided media coverage of Sept. 11. Men didn't.


Whether this means that men are less scared or just less willing to admit it is up for debate. But it may help explain why depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder are more common in women. Clinical assessments of these conditions are largely based on physical symptoms such as sleep problems or a loss of interest in sex -- as well as admitting to these and other symptoms. "There's an old adage in depression: Women internalize and men externalize," Nuccitelli says.

And kids? They seem to be doing both.

Nuccitelli's counseling center reports a flood of recent inquiring and appointment-making phone calls -- mostly from anxious mothers about the terror they feel in themselves or have seen in their children. "There's a big increase in sleep disturbances among children because of fears of terrorism," he says. "I'm counseling one young child now who was brought in for bedwetting. It took six sessions to find out it's because she fears that al-Qaida is living in the cubbyhole in her closet, where you can access the bathroom pipes."

To help your kids deal with current events, you need to inspire safety and security in a way that is best suited for your child. "Whatever you tell children, they take their nonverbal cues from their parents," says Barnett. So if you suddenly duct-tape your windows and stock up on food and water, that drastic disruption in daily routine can be shocking to kids -- or reassuring by showing that you're taking action.

"There are two groups of people," she says. "When anxious, some people like me want to know every single detail, they go to the doctor and want to know everything about that disease. But others trust the doctor will take care of them and don't need to know. If your kids want the details on what you are doing and how you are feeling, it's reassuring for them to get it. But if your child is one of those who doesn't need all the details, all that information may just add to worry. Either way, they all need reassurance that you're able to reach them and they can reach you."

 


 

SOURCES: Gallup News Service, Feb. 12, 2003. Rosalind Chait Barnett, PhD, senior scientist, Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University; director, Community, Families and Work Program. Michael Nuccitelli, PhD, director of SLS Health, Brewster, N.Y.