New Recommendations for Screening for Anxiety in Women and Teens

New Recommendations for Screening for Anxiety in Women and Teens

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF
Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

Living during a pandemic is enough to raise anxiety levels in all of us. But for some, anxiety is more than temporary worry. For many women who suffer from an untreated anxiety disorder, the frequent fear and concern can interfere with their ability to form and maintain relationships, participate in hobbies, school or work, and enjoy life. And like many other disorders, anxiety is not often discussed at the doctor’s office, which means many cases go undiagnosed and treated.

Fortunately, new recommendations were recently issued by the Women’s Preventive Services Initiative, a coalition of women’s health advocacy groups, to ensure anxiety disorders are detected—and treated—as quickly as possible. The group’s guidelines advise primary care clinicians to begin screening for anxiety disorders in women starting at the age of 13, including pregnant and postpartum women, and clinical judgement should be used to determine frequency for continued screening. The group also advises that further evaluation is needed when anxiety is detected, to ensure accurate diagnosis and treatment/management.

How Prevalent Is Anxiety in Women?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes that anxiety disorders “serious medical conditions – just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes,” and the most prevalent of all mental health disorders—with an estimated 264 million people worldwide with a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Even more disturbing is the ratio of men to women to experience anxiety disorders—according to the ADAA, women are twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder (from puberty to age 50).

Researchers suggest that genetics (hereditary component), hormones, societal pressures or other “experiences common among women” (e.g., sexual harassment, abuse or assault and the trauma related to those experiences) might be contributors as to why women experience anxiety disorders more than men.

Depression and anxiety are often comorbid conditions (meaning people are diagnosed with both conditions.) Estimates suggest more than 50% of patients with major depressive disorders also suffer from an anxiety disorder. In 2016, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force developed screening guidelines for depression, but until the WPSI’s recommendations, no guidelines existed for screening for anxiety.

What Should Women Know?

Women should be aware that they are predisposed to higher rates of anxiety than men, and should talk with their provider about screening for both anxiety and depression. Women should also watch for signs and symptoms of anxiety (according to the ADAA), such as:

  • Feeling nervous, irritable or on edge
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

There are many lifestyle and treatment options that can help. For many, practicing mindfulness and getting regular exercise and sleep can help with symptoms. Cognitive therapy and medications have also proven effective for many. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about your mental health, and ask about regular screening for anxiety and depression.