University of Wisconsin researchers are conducting a study that could provide insight as to why preteen girls are twice as likely to experience symptoms of anxiety.

The study is examining the brain function and behavioral responses to stressful situations in girls ages nine to 11 to determine why women are more prone to anxiety than men. The results of the study may help determine ways to prevent symptoms that could develop into disorders later on.

UW psychiatry researcher Lisa Williams, who is leading the study, said the study focuses on girls transitioning from childhood to adolescence because that is when most anxiety symptoms emerge.

“During childhood, boys and girls are equally likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, and after the transition into adolescence the risk doubles for females,” Williams said.

If a person has significant anxiety as a child, they are more likely to develop other problems as they reach college age, such as depressive disorders, substance abuse and more severe forms of anxiety, Williams said.

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It is unclear why girls are more prone to anxiety, Williams said. Some researchers used to think that culturally, women were more comfortable talking about their symptoms and seeking treatment. But over time, men have become more open to this and the gender difference still persists.

Jack Nitschke, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at UW, said the hormonal changes that happen during adolescent development could cause anxiety to occur in women.

“[Women] think something is wrong with their body, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Nitschke said.

Women are more likely than men to get raped or experience some type of sexual assault, which can affect their likelihood of developing anxiety, Nitschke said.  

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Nitschke said the media can also negatively impact young women because tabloids present distorted images of women’s bodies. Models are not only altered by computers, but they are also prone to developing eating disorders.

“What has now been set up as a standard of beauty for a young woman — and also, interestingly, the standard of beauty that our young men should be attracted to — is actually a diseased body, a body that has eating disorders,” Nitschke said.

But Williams said a biological factor, rather than societal influences, may be to blame for girls’ increased risk of anxiety. Her study is looking into changes in the brain and behavioral responses to stressful situations to pinpoint the cause.

 

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One method used in the study looks at brain function using an fMRI, which is a type of MRI that measures blood flow depending on brain activity. To do this, girls look at images that will elicit different types of emotional responses, Williams said.

The study also looks at the girls’ brain structures to determine if there are physical differences in certain areas of the brain that do not develop the same way healthy girls’ brains do, Williams said.

The girls who participate will be studied for a three year period, Williams said. The lab hopes to study around 150 girls by the completion of the study.

The girls currently participating experience some form of anxiety, but their symptoms are not severe enough for them to receive any form of treatment, Williams said. Around half of the girls who are involved in the study will get better over time, while the other half will either maintain current levels of anxiety or have to seek treatment for a worsened condition.

Williams said she hopes to improve detection of anxiety in children and create better outcomes for the girls who are likely to suffer from severe anxiety disorders in the future.

“The unique thing we are able to do with this study design is to find things that distinguish these girls at the biological level … that would make us more likely to observe a kid or intervene earlier to prevent those problems down the line,” Williams said.