A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology looked at sex differences in specific aspects of two animal tests of anxiety-like behavior.
“We studied male and female rodent models to better understand sex differences in biological responses related to anxiety,” study author Thatiane De Oliveira Sergio told us. “We used procedures that let us measure a lot of different aspects of the anxiety behavior.”
Since anxiety disorders occur twice as often in women than in men, the researchers expected the female rodents to be more anxious than males. They were hoping that they would find female-male differences in specific measures, since that could give them important clues to the specific things that lead to more anxiety conditions in women.
“Clinical and pre-clinical studies show that females are more anxious than males,” De Oliveira Sergio told us. “Other than that, we weren’t sure what we would find specifically. After analyzing our findings, we went back and looked at previously published studies and that is when we discovered other people’s work suggesting that life-relevant events were more impactful in females.”
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is on the rise for women. Whereas, 28% of women report experiencing a great deal of stress, 20% of men report the same thing. While 49% of women report that their stress has increased over the past five years, 39% of men report that their stress levels have increased.
Despite the evidence that females suffer more from anxiety disorders than males, many of the studies analyzed only males. This has been a recently recognized very big challenge across science, where females are very understudied.
The researchers decided to use classical models (which have been used for many years) to study anxiety in rodents to directly compare responses in both sexes.
“We used classical anxiety rodent models that are based on the conflict, for example where food is under a bright light,” De Oliveira Sergio told us. “We also looked at the effect of treating both males and females with diazepam - a common drug used to treat anxiety.”
The researchers found that females and males were very different in their response to the most life-relevant aspects related to anxiety, where females are more anxious about most life-relevant aspects of a situation.
“We were expecting that females were more anxious than males however, the results that females are more anxious in the most relevant aspects of a situation was a surprise,” De Oliveira Sergio told us. “When we went back and looked at previously published studies, we found other people’s work suggesting that life-relevant events were more impactful in females. This gives us some confidence that this is a real and important pattern that deserves a lot more study and attention.”
Knowing that anxiety can manifest from different concerns in males and females, with females particularly attuned to the most life-relevant conditions, is a valuable step towards seeking better treatments based on sex differences. Some of these treatments may be drug based, but this idea also is probably important for how we think about the impact of society and modern pressures on women differently from men.
“We worked hard to see if there were valuable clues about sex differences in anxiety and found something unexpected but probably important on many levels,” De Oliveira Sergio told us. “To me, this is a great example of the value of science, where even studies carried out in a rodent can give us important new insights into big challenges.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com