Sex Differences in Depression

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Depression is marked by characteristics such as low self-esteem, pessimism (expecting the worst to happen), and the perception that one has little control over one's life. It's one of the most common psychological maladies of modern humans, and there is evidence that the rate of depression is increasing. Five studies comprised of 39,000 individuals living in five areas of the world revealed that young people are more likely than older people to have experienced at least one major episode of depression (Nesse & Williams, 1994). Moreover, the incidence of depression appears to be higher in more economically developed cultures (Nesse & Williams, 1994).

Adult men and women differ in the incidence of depression and in the nature of their depressive symptoms, but the sexes don't start out different. In childhood, there are no sex differences in depression. After puberty, however, women show a depression rate two to three times that of men (Hoyenga &

Hoyenga, 1993). Roughly 25 percent of all women have at least one depressive episode in their lifetimes. In contrast, only 10 percent of all men will have a depressive episode. The largest sex differences in depression show up between the ages of 18 and 44. After that, the sexes start to converge.

The following list contains some of the critical aspects of sex differences in depressive symptoms (Hoyenga & Hoyenga, 1993):

1. Depressed women more often than depressed men report excessive eating and weight gain as one of the symptoms (although loss of appetite is the most common symptom of depression in both sexes).

2. Women are more likely to cry when depressed and to confront their feelings directly; men are more likely to become aggressive when depressed.

3. Depressed women are more likely than men to seek treatment; depressed men are more likely simply to miss work.

4. Nervous activity (e.g., fidgeting) is more common in depressed women than in depressed men; inactivity is more common in depressed men than in depressed women.

5. Among depressed college students, men are more socially withdrawn, more likely to use drugs, and more likely to experience aches and pains; women are more likely to experience hurt feelings and a decline in self-esteem.

6. Before puberty, the rate of depression is the same in the sexes; only after puberty does the rate of depression in women more than double the rate in men.

People who score toward the "things" end of the dimension prefer vocations that deal with impersonal objects—machines, tools, or materials; examples include carpenters, auto mechanics, building contractors, tool makers, and farmers. Those scoring toward the "people" end of the dimension prefer social occupations, which involve thinking about others, caring for others, or directing others; examples include high school teachers, social workers, and religious counselors.

As you might imagine, there are strong sex dif ferences in these occupational preferences. The correlation between sex and the people-things dimension is .56, or a d of roughly 1.35, which means that men are more likely to score at the things end of the dimension, and women are more likely to score at the people end (Lippa, 1998).

When girls are asked to describe themselves spontaneously, they are more likely than boys to make references to their close relationships. They are more likely to value personal qualities linked to group harmony , such as sensitivity to others. And they are more likely to identify their personal relationships as central to their identity as a person (Gabriel & Gardner , 1999).

Although these results are certainly not surprising in that they fit with our stereo types of women and men, it is interesting that they were correctly identified nearly century ago: "[Researchers] found as the greatest dif ference between men and women

7. Men are more likely to commit suicide "successfully," perhaps because men are more likely to use guns as the method; women are more likely to make nonfatal suicide attempts, perhaps because they use less lethal methods, such as overdosing on pills.

One clue to the sex difference in the nature and rate of depression comes from a large-scale study of 1,100 community-based adults (Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson, & Grayson, 1999). The researchers speculated that women's greater vulnerability to depressive symptoms may stem from factors such as their lower power in the workplace, their relative lack of control over important areas of their lives, their work overload, and their lower status in heterosexual relationships. Because they are searching for ways to control their lives, women may start to ruminate. Rumination involves repeatedly focusing on one's symptoms or distress (e.g., "Why do I continue to feel so bad about myself?" or "Why doesn't my boss like me?"). Because their ruminations fail to lead to efficacious solutions, according to this theory, women continue to ruminate, and rumination is a key contributor to women's greater experience of depressive symptoms. The research supported the importance of rumination. Women were found to ruminate substantially more than men, and rumination, in turn, contributed to the perseverance of the depressive symptoms.

Another theory is that the greater incidence of depression in women is caused by the fact that humans in the modern world live in isolated nuclear families, stripped of the extended kin and other social supports that characterize more traditional societies (Buss, 2000b).

Yet another theory is that women's greater depression is linked with entering mate competition and is caused by dissatisfaction with their physical appearance (Hankin & Abramson, 2001). Indeed, the onset of women's depression and the emergence of the sex dif ference appears around the age of 13, when heterosexual interactions start to increase. And it is well-documented that men place a greater value on physical appearance in their mate selections worldwide, suggesting that women are under increased pressure to compete in the realm of attractiveness (Buss, 2003). Furthermore, body dissatisfaction increases in women around puberty, as does the onset of eating disorders such as binging and purging and dissatisfaction with current weight (Hankin & Abramson, 2001). The final link is that a woman's dissatisfaction with her body and physical appearance is linked with increases in depression. If a woman's self-worth is in part tied up in her physical appearance because of its importance in what men want in a mate, then women's pubertal onset of depression could stem in part from the intensity of mate competition after women hit puberty.

Whatever their origins, sex differences in depression represent one of the largest and most consequential differences in personality.

that in the relative strength of the interest in things and their mechanisms [stronger in men] and the interest in persons and their feelings [stronger in women]" (Thorndike, 1911, p. 31).

Whatever the origins of these preferences, they are likely to have important consequences for the occupations women and men select and the pleasurable activities they pursue. Men, being more thing-oriented, are more likely to be found tinkering with engines or building wooden structures in their spare time. Women, being more people-oriented, are more likely to prefer planning weekend activities around other people.

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Anxiety and Depression 101

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