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Anxiety causes women's brains to work harder than men's

Just as obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, smoking is a risk factor for teen substance abuse. Other substance abuse risk factors include early aggressive or disruptive behaviors, depression, ADHD, and anxiety. If your child has any risk factors, get help. istockphoto

(CBS News) Brains of anxious women work harder than men when put in similar stressful situations, according to a new study conducted at the Michigan State University.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that women are 60 percent more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime. Overall, about 22.8 percent of all people with anxiety disorders in the U.S. are classified as severe. The average age of onset of the symptoms starts as young as 11 years old.

About 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Women are also more likely to have multiple psychiatric disorders at once, and depression often occurs in individuals who have anxiety.

The study, published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology on May 29, tested 79 female college students and 70 male students for error-related brain responses as it related to worrying. Subjects were asked to figure out the middle letter in a group of five letters. Sometimes the letters were the same ("FFFF") and sometimes they differed ("EEFEE"). Then the subjects were asked to take a survey about how much they worry on a day-to-day basis.

Women who identified themselves as big worriers tended to have high levels of brain activity when they made mistakes. Even though the scores for both stressed females and males were about the same, women's brains had to work harder. As the test became more difficult, the more anxious women did worse on the task, meaning anxiety and the stresses that come with it could affect performance.

"Anxious girls' brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries," Jason Moser, lead investigator of the project from the Michigan State University, said in the press release. "As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids - and especially anxious girls - have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math."

The researchers are looking into whether or not estrogen may play a factor in why women have more of a brain response when it comes to completing stress-filled tasks. Estrogen affects the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that assists in learning functions and comprehending errors in the front part of the brain.

In the meantime, both sexes can reduce worrying by writing down their thoughts or doing "brain games" to improve memory and concentration, Moser said.

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