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What Makes Women Anxious?

It’s hard to be happy when you’re waiting, like Henny Penny, for the sky to fall

Women have a complex relationship to anxiety and worry because we have for so long been barred from acting on our ambitions or rebellions that we have learned to turn to fear as a way of dealing with and influencing the world. Our fears confirm our existence, and, if the dreadful thing actually comes to pass, the tragedy also confirms our instincts, intelligence, and importance.

But being afraid of everything is no way to go through life.

That fear can sometimes smooth a pathway on which disaster arrives more quickly is a terrifying but nevertheless possible outcome of many scenarios: the husband, repeatedly and without cause accused of infidelity might decide to a commit a crime to fit his punishment: "If you keep telling me I'm a bastard, I'm going to start acting like one." The teenage daughter accused of being a "tramp" finally goes out and gets pregnant as a way of saying “See, Mom? You’re right, I’m no good. Now are you happy?”

As the “victim” of her own overwhelming fear, the powerless woman can torment those around her with her worries and anxiety. She, in her absence of courage, becomes more powerful than she could possibly be if she acted bravely and took risks—if “power” is defined as merely having an effect on those in her immediate world.

Few women would ever admit to wanting to possess such a destructive influence, but nevertheless many wield it.

Fear is a power belonging to the vanquished, not the victor. In part this power depends on the subterfuge of the vanquished, the camouflage offered by their perceived insignificance.

This is perhaps the most important connection between women's lives, fear and magic: The effectiveness of the female in all three depends upon the acknowledgement and use of a perceived powerlessness. Fear and magic are the imaginary tools of those who secretly consider ineffective--they are tools insofar as they are perceived by the user have an effect on the world, however dubious that conclusion might seem to others.

Those in vulnerable positions--discarded wives, underpaid domestic or office workers, abandoned lovers, unwelcome parents or children-- sometimes resort to fear because they believe in some unrecognized way that their more basic, raw, authentic emotion of outrage and fury would destroy themselves as well as their object.

Although she would never consciously entertain the idea, an anxious woman whose boyfriend is chronically late for dinner might rather picture him stuck in an elevator for three hours (even though she panics at the thought) than admit that he’s having a beer with his friends or playing a computer game at the office. At least an accident would give some dignity to her misery; forced to face being unimportant, ignored, or disrespected, she would have to change her life.

Fear keeps her running in place—no wonder so many nightmares include the image of the dreamer being unable to move quickly or cry out even when danger is near.

Many women are afraid to relinquish their fear, even when they understand intellectually that it hinders them and, despite a false sense of protection against surprise, in no way actually helps them achieve either safety or security.To live in a state of perpetual worry is to live in a half-shadowed world where everything is suspicious and everyone is a suspect.

They fear a sense of calm, and by extension, success, because the desire for more of anything (even what is clearly desirable) appears like hubris, and so invites the BIG fall. They wait for the next shoe to drop, the disaster that inevitably follows in the wake of good news. In other words, they believe that those fools who consider themselves safe are actually in danger. If they get a reassuring diagnosis, they seek another physician, believing more strongly that the risk and consequence of false security can be grave.

It’s tough to be happy when you’re waiting, like Henny Penny, for the sky to fall.

Fear works in the lives of many women as a metaphor for submission or anger—I cannot challenge you or surrender to you, so I will fear you. We may, therefore, fear our parents or teachers or bosses or lovers: We fear what happens if we stay with them and we fear what will happen if we leave. We fear what we love because we invest in it; we fear the possibility of its loss.

But only in acknowledging and embracing the undeniable fact that it is impossible to avoid risk--that we take a risk in everything we do, in everything we say but also in everything we leave undone and in everything we leave unsaid--that can we experience life fully. Worry helps no one; fear, when it is baseless, debases life.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today