Anxiety & Worry in Girls

Anxiety disorders are often rooted in abnormal performance monitoring in girls

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Sometimes smart girls do worse on tests than they should. It might be because they’re so distracted by worrying about how well they are doing that they don’t have energy left to focus on the test.

A recent study monitored male and female brains while taking a test. Results showed that the worry girls experience during the test gets in the way of their doing a good job.

"Writing worrisome thoughts down can help clear the head!"

Jason Moser, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, led an investigation into the way the brain works in people who worry.

It is important to identify anxiety disorders as early as possible in order to get people the treatment they need. Anxiety disorders that are left untreated can worsen over time, lowering quality of life and even making normal, every day tasks difficult.

Early identification of obsessive compulsive disorder or general anxiety disorder could help a person get and then keep things manageable. But it’s not always easy to catch anxiety disorders until they are full blown. The goal of Moser’s study is to create a non-invasive way to test early for anxiety disorders by looking at a person’s brain waves.

It is believed that anxiety is often born from ‘abnormal performance-monitoring’. That is to say the brain gets all wrapped up in paying attention to whether or not it’s doing a good job at the task rather than focusing on actually doing the task.

The authors of the study note that anxiety is twice as common in women than in men.

Moser’s team placed electrode caps on 149 (79 female) subjects while they performed a set task to monitor brain activity. Each participant wore the cap while sitting in front of a computer screen that displayed different five letter combinations, such as “FFFFF”, “EEFEE”, etc. The task was to correctly identify the middle letter of each combination.

After finishing the test in front of the computer the participants reported how much they worry on a questionnaire.

The group of female subject who reported high levels of worry on the questionnaire performed similarly to the male subjects, but their brains worked harder according to the electrode cap. When they made the test more difficult, the worry group of females began to do worse at the task.

Moser suggests: “Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries. As a result, their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids—especially anxious girls—have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math.”

One question Moser and his team are trying to answer going forward with their research is whether or not the hormone estrogen is a contributing factor. Women have higher levels of estrogen then men.

Estrogen affects the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is involved with both learning and processing mistakes in the brain.

Moser’s suggestion one easy treatment for anxious girls is to have them write in a journal: “Writing your worries down in a journal rather than letting them stick in your head.” He also suggests ‘brain games’, such as crossword and Sudoku puzzles, to help improve brain pathways for memory and concentration.

Moser states: “This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls. It’s one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders.”

This study was published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, May 2012. No financial information was given and no conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 20, 2012
Last Updated:
November 12, 2012