Oestrogen Levels Could Impact Anxiety Treatment In Women

Despite being the most common mental health condition – with one in three Australian women suffering – treatment for anxiety has a surprisingly low success rate.

And groundbreaking findings from a new study published in the international journal Psychoneuroendocrinology might explain why that’s the case in women.

The research, funded by MQ: Transforming Mental Health, discovered that women with anxiety who had low oestrogen levels were less likely to get better – and stay better – following treatment.

After treating 90 women (30 of whom were taking hormonal contraceptives) with spider phobias, researchers measured their oestrogen levels. The success of their treatments methods were analysed through an interview and by measuring their behaviour around a live spider, before treatment, straight after treatment and 12 weeks later.

During the early phase of a woman’s menstrual cycle, oestrogen levels are low. They’re even lower in women who are also taking a hormonal contraceptive, which is estimated to be up to 80 percent of us at some stage in our lives. 

When comparing the success rate of treatment between participants on and off the pill, they discovered that women using hormonal contraceptives had a significantly lower rate of improvement during treatment, less reduction in symptoms after treatment and at the 12-week follow up.

“50% of people do not respond to anxiety treatment,” lead author Bronwyn M.Graham told Metro.

“The study indicates potential new ways to bolster treatment for women: we could deliver treatment at optimum times in their menstrual cycles, women could temporarily come off the pill during treatment, or women could be administered medication containing oestrogen during treatment.”

Further studies are required to determine whether these finding are applicable across different mental health conditions like OCD, PTSD and generalised anxiety disorder, and whether various hormonal contraceptives have differing impacts. 

For information, support and guidance from mental health professionals, contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 187 263 or email [email protected] from 10am-10pm AEST. The SANE Online Forums also provide a safe, free and anonymous online platform offering connection and support.

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