Disclaimer: Author is not a medical professional and this article is not intended to provide medical advice. If you are having trouble coping with mental health issues, please seek a qualified medical professional. In case of life-threatening emergency, call 911.
*Trigger warning: personal description of anxiety/panic attacks.*
I’ll never forget the first time I had a panic attack—it was paralyzing. My husband (then boyfriend) and I were leaving a movie theater. We saw a comedy. It was a beautiful day, and we were having a wonderful time. As we continued our walk back through the parking lot to get to our car, I remember my vision becoming razor thin. I focused on the gravel in the pavement. It became so hard to breathe; I realized that I couldn’t speak. I had chest pain; it felt like someone was sitting on me. My heart palpitations were so strong that it felt like my heart was trying to beat itself out of my chest.
I thought, “Oh God, I’m having a heart attack.”
Vaguely, it occurred to me just then that I was still walking. I reached out my hand, hoping to land it in my husband’s, and when it did, I squeezed as hard as I could and intentionally stopped walking to try to get his attention. And just like that, it was gone. My adrenaline was high, but all the physical symptoms—from the tunnel vision to the heart palpitations—simply disappeared.
Looking back, my husband said he’d noticed that I’d stopped laughing at the conversation. Obviously, he’d felt me taking his hand but thought I’d given it an affectionate squeeze. We determined later that the terror that I thought I’d been experiencing for two to three minutes was more like ten to fifteen seconds.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety and its related disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, like myself and many others, then you are a part of the 18% of the population with an anxiety disorder, though not all people with anxiety have panic attacks. Anxiety disorders include a variety of conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and various specific phobias. But while both men and women can experience anxiety, data from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that women are almost twice as likely as men to experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
At a time when the leaky pipeline is still steadily dripping, and graduate studies have been shown it to be significantly detrimental to one’s mental health, it can feel like the odds are increasingly stacked against women and women's health in the workplace. A study of 2,500 employers in the UK found that only 17% of those surveyed found mental illness to be a valid reason to take a sick day, meaning that women struggling with anxiety disorders are the ones taking on the lion’s share of the burden, until “mental health days” become more socially acceptable.
One way to change the status quo is to better understand how anxiety disorders specifically affect women's health in the workplace and provide the additional support that women need, so let’s start by looking at a few ways in which women experience anxiety disorders differently than men.
Using Those Vacation Days
In the U.S., there is no law governing the use of sick days as “mental health days.” Consequently, most companies and employers have no policies on them, but a quick Google search on using mental health days will quickly fill your screen with passive-aggressive comments from employers and managers about using a sick day for something so frivolous, unnecessary, or simply unexcused. As a result, twice as many women as men are heading into the office—some of them knowing that they’re not able to perform at their best—and working an eight-hour day, when they should be at home resting and recovering. After multiple days in a row of this additional pressure and stress, burnout is a likely result, which has been shown to lead to reduced female retention and the ever-mentioned leaky pipeline (i.e. women cannot or refuse to maintain this constantly high anxiety level and quit their jobs).
If this is a major contributor to the leaky pipeline, there sees to be a glaringly obvious and simple solution: employers should recognize mental health days as a legitimate sick day. Why should a woman have to choose between her health and her vacation days twice as often as the man next to her? In addition, employers might also consider that working moms have an additional complication, since societal pressures still demand that Mom be the one to take a day off when Junior is sick at home from school. Mothers in the workplace are saving sick days for family members, when perhaps they need a day for themselves.
Getting to Know Your Inner Impostor
Anxiety is a complex disorder, which can stem from or lead to the development of other conditions. While anxiety is commonly associated with depression, it’s also important for professional women to know that anxiety can be related to a condition popularly referred to as Impostor Syndrome. Coined back in the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome is a phenomenon wherein someone who is accomplished and successful has internalized feelings of failure, self-doubt, and fear that someone is going to find out the “The Impostor” is not worthy of the honor and achievement being bestowed upon that person. While studies during the 1980s and 1990s are inconclusive as to the prevalence of Impostor Syndrome in women versus in men, research is currently being pursued at a variety of academic and private institutions on the prevalence of Impostor Syndrome in high-achieving women in STEM fields.
At the 2018 national conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas, I sat in on a workshop for women in STEM, entitled “Cultivating Your Voice and Banishing Your Inner Impostor.” In this room, there were easily more than 50 women, spanning first-generation graduate students, renowned international conference organizers, and experts in STEM education at the undergraduate and advanced levels. Many more were leaders in their respective fields and “double-minorities” from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The speakers opened with a series of questions to identify how many in the crowd had experienced any degree of Impostor Syndrome. Imagine the surprise as we looked around the room to find that we had all believed, at some point in our careers, that we didn’t deserve the prestigious roles, awards, and positions for which we had worked so hard.
Impostor Syndrome is a difficult struggle, where those who experience the phenomenon are—by nature—afraid to admit it, but there are ways to empower yourself to overcome the effects. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, recommends that high-achieving women ask for help and recognize that Impostor Syndrome is common, particularly for those with high degrees of success. She advises women to surround oneself with a support group, to be vocal about feelings of inadequacy, and to genuinely celebrate your own success.
Lightening the Heavy Load
The notion of “having it all” is everywhere. Marissa Meyer was criticized for trying to attain it during her tenure at Yahoo!, while Sheryl Sandberg critiques “The Myth of Doing It All” in her book, Lean In. In yet another take, “Drop the Ball” by Tiffany Dufu is Dufu's personal story about the stress and anxiety associated with trying to have it all and the juggling required when societal expectations of being a professional, a woman, and a mother place unique demands on women—social mores and guilts that their male counterparts are not pressured to experience.
In the first few pages of the book’s introduction, Dufu identifies the multitude of responsibilities that clash for working wives and mothers on a regular basis: On her first day back in the office from maternity leave, with breasts painfully engorged with unpumped milk, she asks, “If I was too consumed at the office to remember to do something as essential as pump milk for my baby, what else was going to fall through the cracks? When would I sort the pile of mail or pay the bills? How was I going to keep up with the laundry and cooking? When would I have time to go to the grocery store? I had missed two e-mails from the caregiver while I was in meetings. How would I make sure her questions were answered promptly? What would I do about getting the car inspected? Would my book club ever see me again? Would I ever read another book? When would I buy all the Christmas gifts for my family and friends? How would I have time for family and friends? How would I have time for me?”
In just a few sentences, Dufu plainly identifies the common stress and anxiety countless professional women experience. She later revisits the uniqueness of the female situation, saying that it is not that men don’t feel the stress of fulfilling household duties, but in addition to fulfilling professional responsibilities, women feel that we are the ones primarily in charge of managing child care, household chores, and happy home and family lives. For women, the anxiety doesn’t end when we get home. Dufu’s recommendation is unusual in comparison to her contemporary peers: to recognize that we can’t do it all, that we should intentionally “drop the ball” in some areas, entrusting those responsibilities to one’s partner or child care, and essentially, that women should not be made to feel guilty for not trying to have it all.
Between the reluctance and fear of women to take mental health days when needed, the effect this has on women’s abilities to recognize their own successes, and subsequent pressures from the world around us to continue to be homemakers while we develop our professional careers, it should come as little surprise that anxiety disorders are twice as common in women than men. These anxieties are a reflection of the world we live in and are just one more reason for women to empower and strengthen one another. If you have a moment, look around at the women in your life: one in five of them likely has some form of anxiety—perhaps with panic attacks and other psychological and physical symptoms as debilitating as mine. She could use your support.
Dr. Amanda G. Riojas is a freelance writer and computational chemist living in Austin, Texas. She is the recipient of the 2018 David Carr Award, for her writing on the intersection of life and technology, and her articles about life as a working mom have been featured at Motherly and SheKnows. When she’s not advocating for women and minorities in STEM, Amanda enjoys spending her time traveling, cooking, and preparing for Baby #2.