Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

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Women and Anxiety: Understanding Women's Fears

To confront our deepest anxieties is to disclose the undisclosable.

To confront our deepest anxieties is to disclose the undisclosable—the story of our most authentic, unmediated personal history. Our most profound—and sometimes neurotic—worries are often inextricably bound up with our desires. (Yes, this is a “Calling Dr. Freud! Emergency! Calling Dr. Freud!” moment: Freud recognized that a fear is often an inverted wish.)

In other words, those who fear the storm are often those who have the wish in their heart to bring on the lightning and the winds of change.

But we often can’t admit that even to ourselves, which makes it almost impossible to communicate it effectively to others. Women want our anxiety to be given credence, to be acknowledged as real to us—even if it seems eccentric or illogical to others. To be dismissed as irrational, hysterical, paranoid, or silly is a common and exasperating fate for the anxious woman.

When you name a fear—even if that fear appears odd to others—you have some power over your emotion. In a paradoxical way, to worry about something may lead to a sense of control for those who know, logically, that they are powerless.

When you can’t do anything else, you can at least be frightened.

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Being scared is often the “something” that gets done when nothing else can be done: women picture their loved ones in ditches, in the arms of others, in prison, or in pain. Although they know that they can’t prevent the slings and arrows of fortune,  they believe on some level that anticipation and fear will act as a shield against  tragedy.

This, too, often comes from childhood, as clinical psychological studies prove. From Freud’s studies on hysteria to more recent works ranging from the scholarly (such as highly-regarded Psychopathology of Women by Ihsan Al-Issa, and Marks’ Fear, Phobia and Rituals) to the popular (books such as Overcoming Anxiety, Triumph Over Fear and Don’t Panic are all general trade overviews of the subject, none of which directly relates to women and non-pathological fear), the role of fear in the lives of highly-functioning, able women has been glossed over but never actually confronted.

Studies done by clinicians at Columbia University, for example, reveal a fascinating and emblematic gender-difference concerning fear. When asked to write a fear-laden story about death, male subjects overwhelmingly chose to write about the terror of their own death. Women subjects, given precisely the same instructions, wrote stories about the death of a loved one—a child, a spouse, a parent.

They almost never attached their greatest anxities to the loss of their own lives, but instead to the sense of powerlessness over the lives of others.

Women live with fears unrecognized yet profoundly influential in our daily lives. And our fears, anxieties and presentiments of disaster, uninvited by us but nevertheless present in every moment, can keep us from living fully.

Only by examining the mechanism of anxiety can it be understood; only when it is understood can it be dealt with effectively.

We need to understand that anxiety is in our heads, not out of our hands; we pick and choose our fears, and polish them up with  secret attention. Even if we don’t display them, we still own them, and that means we can make use of them or throw them away—or change them—if we choose. 

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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