Anxiety Disorders: What Every African Woman Need to Know



By Chika Jones. Freelance writer and DatelinehealthAfrica (DLHA) Volunteer. Medical Review and Editorial support is by the DLHA Team. 

An African woman standing while leaning on a tree.

An African woman standing while leaning on a tree



Key Facts


  • The different types of anxiety disorders together constitute one of the world’s common mental disorders, affecting 301 million people in 2019 (WHO).
  • Women are twice as likely to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime compared to men.
  • Excessive worry, feelings of doom, fear and panic attacks are among the top symptoms of the condition.
  • Highly effective treatments are available for anxiety disorders, but only 25% of those who need care get it.  .



What is Anxiety Disorder?


Anxiety is a feeling of worry, fear or distrust about a situation. Everyone has anxiety at one point or stage in their life and it is a normal reaction to the stresses of life. Anxiety helps you to stay alert and cope with challenges.


Women who have anxiety disorders have excessive symptoms that interfere with their activities of daily living, such as going to school or work or taking decisions.


Anxiety disorders are difficult to control and may cause you severe distress. It can last for an extended period of time if not treated.


Read on as this article aims to educate and increase your awareness of the types and causes of anxiety disorders; how to recognise the symptoms and how you can get help for the disorder.



Causes of Anxiety Disorders


  • Genetics: Anxiety is thought to be about 30% inherited. It tends to runs in family and can be hereditary. Children of parents who have a diagnosed anxiety disorder can be as much as seven times more likely to develop an anxious disorder themselves.


Genetics is not the only factors that can cause anxiety disorder. Other environmental factors or traumatic experience can predispose someone to the condition too. Some of these include:


  • Poverty:  It is a key driver to anxiety disorders as it can limit economic activity based on the fact that when an African woman is anxious she is unable to live and perform her job well. More recent research has suggested the association between poverty and anxiety is likely mediated by the stress related to living in poverty


  • Gender-based violence: it is a traumatic experience where the victim experiences intense fear, helplessness or horror. The body’s natural fight-flight response can lead to physiological changes that manifest as anxiety. A history of physical and sexual abuse in childhood was associated with anxiety later in life. African women who experience domestic violence are much more likely to have anxiety disorders. After a traumatic experience, victims often become hyper vigilant, constantly scanning their environment for threats. This state of heightened alertness creates a near constant state of anxiety and anticipation of further violence. The persistent fear, worry and trauma associated with gender-based violence can increase vulnerability to other anxiety disorders such as social anxiety or panic disorder.


  • Health-related concerns: Some health issues can cause one to fixate on it and become anxious about it; for example infertility. 


Infertility is a common problem in African countries as it affects 30% of the population. African women who experience infertility go through a great deal of immense physical and social stress. There is high regard on fertility and childlessness is culturally unacceptable.


Infertility causes worry for the couples. Although, research has shown that male and female factors can contribute to infertility and both genders are responsible either singly or collectively, the burden of infertility and its consequences usually fall on women in African communities. Infertile women are shunned, discriminated, stigmatized by their family and the community in some instance.



Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder


With anxiety disorder, you may experience excessive fear, dread, worry over a situation and have panic attacks in some cases. Other signs that you may have anxiety disorder include:

  • Feeling irritable
  • Having heart palpitations
  • Sweating or shaking
  • Insomnia (difficulty sleeping at night)
  • Abdominal distress
  • Hot flashes
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or loom



Types of Anxiety Disorder


You may experience one or more different types of anxiety disorders at the same time. These include: 


  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)


GAD causes a woman to worry excessively about minor issues such as her health, job, and family. The excessive worry may cause you to dwell on the worst case scenario, even when there is little to worry about. You may experience muscle tension and other stress related physical symptoms such as poor sleep quality (insomnia) or upset stomach. Women with GAD barely perform their daily activities and are at higher risk of depression and other anxiety disorders.


  • Panic Disorder


Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder in which you feel impending fear of doom regularly accompanied by uncomfortable physical symptoms. These episodes are called panic attacks.


When you have panic attacks, you have a fear of losing control or sudden attack of terror when there is no actual danger directed towards you.


Panic disorders are more common in women that in men. Women with panic attacks may believe they are dying or losing control.


  • Social Phobia


This condition is also called social anxiety disorders and it is a persistent fear of social gathering where you may feel afraid of being judged, embarrassed or criticized by others. You may get embarrassed easily, have panic attacks and avoid social situations.


  • Specific Phobia


This is an intense fear of something that poses no or little threat to your life. If you have this condition, you may be sacred of closed spaces, height, animals, water, etc. When confronted with the feared object or situation you may have a panic attack or severe anxiety.





Anxiety disorders are clinically diagnosed by healthcare providers when fear, dread or excessive worry of non-threatening situations, objects become uncontrollable and interfere with your daily life. Additional diagnostic considerations include how long the symptoms have persisted and how intense they are.


Depression and anxiety disorder overlaps each other and hence encounter similar challenges and have similar approach to solutions.


Although laboratory and imaging tests are available to support the clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorders, these may not be readily available in most African communities and they are not that much needed in primary care settings.





Anxiety disorders require treatment. Though there are different types, the condition is generally treated with psychotherapy or medication or both.


  • Psychotherapy


This treatment approach is also called talk therapy and it is used to treat anxiety disorders.


Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a gold standard for psychotherapy.


CBT teaches you a different way of living, reacting to situations, behaving and thinking, so you can stop from feeling too anxious or fearful.


Exposure therapy is a type of CBT and helps you to focus on the source of the anxiety disorders. It helps you to face your fears head on and situations that you may be avoiding. It can be used along with relaxation techniques.


  • Medications


Medications do not cure anxiety disorders but they help to relieve symptoms. Anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines and varieties of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are often given for a limited periods of time because you can easily build up tolerance which will make the medication to be less effective over time. Anti-depressants, which are generally varieties of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are also prescribed to help treat anti-anxiety disorders.Beta-blockers which are used to treat hypertension can also be used to treat physical symptoms of anxiety disorders.





Being aware and educated about anxiety disorders will put you in a good position to live your best life free of the condition. Practise the following self-care points to manage your symptoms of anxiety and promote your overall well-being:

  • Avoid or abstain from alcohol use and remember that the use of illicit drugs would worsen your anziety symptoms;
  • Exercise regularly, even if it’s just a short walk;
  • Eat a healthy diet;
  • Bring some regularity to your life in such matters as eating, sleeping, work and socialisation; 
  • Learn and practise relaxation and mindfulness techniques, such as slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation as well as meditation.


Also talk with your primary care physician or mental health provider with any concerns that you may have and to help you work through the best option for you among the highly effective treatments that are available for anxiety disorders.




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Published: March 18, 2024

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