The first word I use when I describe myself is not "millennial," "woman," or even "lactose intolerant." It's "worrier." I worry — it's an integral part of my worldview, to the point that I feel compelled to preface every story she tells with, "You should know that I tend to worry."
How else will people understand why I demand that my significant other keep me updated in real time on his itinerary whenever he travels? How else will they understand why I double- and triple-check that the front door is locked every night?
As overwrought as my tendency to worry may seem, it stems from a simple saying that I've been hearing since childhood: "Better safe than sorry." According to Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EDM, a psychotherapist and author of Forward in Heels, I'm probably not the only woman who's taken this adage to heart. "We tell girls to be careful, we tell them to be safe; and we tell boys to be adventurous," she says. Women receive the message that they should worry more than men extremely early — and, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, by the time they reach puberty, their likelihood of having an anxiety disorder is almost twice that of their male cohorts.
A variety of factors, including hormonal differences, an increased risk of sexual violence, and genetics, has been thought to contribute to the prevalence of anxiety in women. Although it's often noted that more research needs to be done around why this gender imbalance persists, the power of historical stereotypes and societal expectations should not be disregarded as a key influence.
Maenpaa points out that women have long been painted as the caretakers, the people who get all the nitty-gritty (read: mundane, usually domestic) tasks done. Although these characterizations are broad and outdated, women can still end up playing this kind of role without even realizing it. "Women are often tasked with a greater burden of emotional labor, but [are] not necessarily respected and supported for so doing," Matt Lundquist, LCSW, MSEd, a psychotherapist based in New York City, explains. The implicit expectation is that, since women have traditionally been the caretakers, they're better fit to address others' emotions, even if, as a 2004 study suggested, it comes at a detriment to their own.
For the record, women have plenty of large-scale things that they should be worried about — reproductive rights, the future of our planet, and insidiously pervasive sexual harassment leap to mind. Worrying or acting as a caretaker isn't necessarily a bad thing, let alone a tendency that needs to be squashed, Lundquist says. It's the way that society tends to receive women's personal concerns (and how women, in turn, process this reception) that needs to change.
"Women's needs are historically taken less seriously," Lundquist says, even when they revolve around their well-being. "Legitimate complaints are often dismissed by labeling them as excessive worry."
When women feel dismissed or as if their concerns aren't being recognized (at work, in their relationships, or just in general), they tend to internalize those feelings, Maenpaa says. Where a man might demand that others stop what they're doing and acknowledge his ideas, a woman is more likely to say nothing and, instead, wonder if she's done something to hinder her own progress. Maenpaa adds that, when women turn this sort of treatment in on themselves, their self-worth falls and they draw the conclusion that they're deficient in some way. What usually follows is further withdrawal from others and, you guessed it — further worrying. And, when these feelings of stress go unchecked, they can come to fuel such additional mental and physical health issues as migraines, depression, poor heart health, and irregular menstruation.
Whether a woman is worried about her next promotion, her family's stability, or, again, if she locked the front door, she shouldn't have to carry these concerns silently and without outside support. The first — and easiest — thing women can do to mitigate their everyday worries and stress is to ask themselves what they can immediately do to feel more at ease. That could look like spending a quiet half hour alone, taking a few deep breaths, or making a therapy appointment for ASAP.
But, Maenpaa explains, women will have to look past themselves in order to actually address their worries for good. Yes, this means having to self-advocate and speak up when it isn't a given that their voices will be heard, but the long-term benefits will make this risk well worth it.
"A lot of times, people just don't know what you need," she says, adding that if you explain what you need from those around you in order to feel more grounded and present (and therefore less overwhelmed with worry), they should become more engaged. You can, for example, set firmer boundaries with your coworkers to make it clear that you can't — and won't — take responsibility for every problem they want to bring your way. Or, you can communicate to your housemates or live-in partner which tasks you're willing to take on, and at what point your need for self-care must take priority over the household chores.
Beyond even that, Maenpaa says women can and should demand greater support from such institutions as their employers and the government. This means finding other women who share your concerns and calling for change as a group. Alluding to the need for better maternity leave and greater protections against assault and harassment, Lundquist echoes the importance of systematic changes for the sake of women's mental health: "It would be irresponsible to try to treat the anxiety without addressing what's causing it."
If we look at history, at how girls are raised from an early age, and at how systems of power continue to target and minimize women, we can see that, to a rather grave degree, worrying is a woman's problem — but it does not have to be her life sentence.


Sara Coughlin