PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — We all get stressed out, and we all handle it differently.

But women suffer from stress-related illnesses more than men.

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In fact, the prevalence of anxiety disorders is twice as high in women as it is in men.

The question is why, and what can be done about it?

Dr. Mohammed Milad is a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, studying how women regulate stress differently than men.

Dr. Milad says, “You don’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that we process fear differently.”

That’s largely due to estrogen which Dr. Milad says plays an important role in how the brain regulates fear.

Some areas tell us when to be afraid, while others tell us to calm down.

Dr. Milad says, “The area that regulates fear tends to lose in anxiety disorders. Estrogen tends to restore that function, restore that balance.”

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So can giving estrogen to women change how the brain responds to fear?

To study that, young female volunteers are placed in an MRI machine and shown a picture of a lamp.

When the lamp turns yellow, nothing happens.

When it turns blue, they get an electrical shock to their finger, teaching them to fear the blue light.

Later, they’re given an estrogen pill to see if they have the same fear response in their brain when faced again with the dreaded blue light.

The goal is to find out if estrogen can enhance how women with certain anxiety disorders like PTSD, social phobias, and panic disorders respond to therapy.

Dr. Milad says, “If we come up with a way that four to five pills of estrogen over six weeks can make your exposure therapy efficient, not just for PTSD but across the anxiety disorders, that’s great.”

This research also could have broader implications, including possibly helping to explain post-partum depression and the higher risk of anxiety in women as they age.

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