Anxiety makes girls brains work harder

By Amy Mayer • Published: September 4th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

In the emotional flood of a new school year, anxiety is an unwelcome, although common, feeling.

But now, new research from Michigan State University shows that anxiety may cause more than just a pesky fluttering in the stomach. It can actually hinder academic success, particularly in girls.

Girls and boys can perform easy tests with the same success rates, regardless of anxiety. But it takes anxious girls longer to complete the task. That’s because the anxiety causes the girls to worry too much about how they’re doing — what researchers dub “performance monitoring.”

The worry diminishes girls’ working memory resources and, therefore, hinders their progress on the test. When the test gets harder, this interference actually causes the anxious girls to get lower scores than boys. Researchers say this relationship between worry and performance monitoring only seems to affect the anxious girls’ scores, not the boys’ scores.

It still isn’t fully understood exactly why anxiety affects boys and girls differently. Anxiety affects women at about twice the rate it affects men, and the study suggests that certain brain characteristics associated with anxiety risk may only be relevant in women. The hormone estrogen may play a role and the researchers plan to investigate this.

Whatever the cause of this discrepancy in how anxiety affects girls’ and boys’ brains, it could help explain the gender difference in certain academic hang-ups. For example, girls are more likely than boys to express a fear of math.

In the meantime, the study’s authors offer this piece of concrete advice for people dealing with anxiety: write your worries down in a journal so you’ve paid them attention before you need to concentrate. Then, maybe they’ll leave your brain alone so you can focus on your work.