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Women & Anxiety…What is Your Body Telling You

By Dr. Krista Schenkel, Family Medicine Physician, Penn State Health St. Joseph Strausstown

As women, we are very different than men in relation to our bodies, brains, hormones, and genetic make-up. So why wouldn’t we be different in the way we cope with stress? There is ongoing research searching for a reason why, and no solid answers have been found. What we do know is that as women, we have a great deal of responsibility which can create an overwhelming sense of anxiety in our lives.

Anxiety can be a normal reaction to everyday stressors. For example, you may have anxiety when your in-laws are visiting for the week, when you can’t afford to pay an unexpected medical bill that just arrived, or when you have an important examination that you have to pass. Although anxiety makes us feel uncomfortable, it is actually a normal reaction to stress and is a coping mechanism. Anxiety helps us manage our emotions when the in-laws arrive, motivates us to budget for those medical bills, or encourages us to study harder for that exam. Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it begins to interfere with our daily life. Dreading non-threatening everyday activities like riding the bus, talking to a co-worker, or going to a party are signs that anxiety is an interference. This is when it becomes a disorder which often times needs treatment.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) is a medical book published by the American Psychiatric Association which gives standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. According to the DSM-IV, anxiety disorders usually present with excessive anxiety or worry over situations, last more than 6 months, occur more days than not, and interfere with social, work, family, or other aspects of daily life. This anxiety cannot be due to the psychological effects of a substance or cause of a medical condition or disorder.

According to the DSM IV, the panic attacks are an abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms: heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, feeling of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint, feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself, fear of losing control or going crazy, fear of dying, numbness or tingling sensations, and chills or hot flushes. Panic attacks can happen at any point in time, and unfortunately, many of these symptoms overlap with life-threatening medical conditions such as a heart attack or stroke. This makes the jobs of healthcare professionals very difficult and can create unnecessary labs, tests, and studies. This is why it is important to know the symptoms of panic attacks and try to immediately identify the source of the panic and have a plan on how to calm yourself down. If your plan does not work, then you need to seek help to make sure it is not something more concerning.

Seeking help for anxiety does not mean that you will be immediately started on a medication. There are many different modalities available for treatment of anxiety. Complementary or alternative medicine includes stress and relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and acupuncture. Increasing your physical activity level can also relieve stress and anxiety. There is cognitive behavioral therapy which focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing your thinking and behavior to relieve your anxiety. If all other methods fail, medications can be added. These include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft and Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Cymbalta and Effexor. Occasionally, benzodiazepines are needed for breakthrough panic attacks. Benzodiazepines need to be used with extreme caution as they are highly addictive and only relieve anxiety for a short time.

If you believe you may be suffering from anxiety, start by actively identifying the things in your life that cause anxiety as well as the things that make you happy and relaxed. Next, balance them out! Find ways to decrease your heavy workload day to day, force yourself to take time for yourself doing things you enjoy, and practice daily meditation exercises and yoga. Most importantly, try not to be wonder woman; she is a fictional character who doesn’t exist and you will be setting yourself up to fail. If needed, seek professional help. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, however there is a problem with losing who you are because of things you cannot control on your own.

As appeared in Winter edition of Women2Women Magazine

Patty Kelly, Physician Referral Specialist Did you like Dr. Schenkel’s article and want to learn more about her? Or need to find a physician, program, or medical practice close to home? Call Patty Kelly, Physician Referral Specialist, and let her help you find the perfect fit.
610-378-2001   |   toll free 844-363-0882   |   FindAPhysician@PennStateHealth.psu.edu

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