Fall in Love with Your Female Brain

Susan was a forty-five-year-old mother of four and the CEO of a nonprofit company that created educational materials for learning-disabled children. She loved her husband and her family, and she had a strong sense of mission for her work. She was active in her local church and was a respected member of her community. Viewed from the outside, Susan seemed to “have it all.”

But when Susan came into my office, she told a very different story. “I’m just not feeling good,” she said. “I’m tired all the time, whether I sleep in on the weekends or not! I can’t remember the simplest things, and it seems like I can’t keep my mind on anything for more than a minute before something distracts me. I am feeling very overwhelmed.” She sighed. “And it’s getting worse. Stuff I used to be able to do easily I now really have to struggle through. I know people say they slow down as they get older, but I never thought it would happen to me at this age! I wonder if I have early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. I picked up one of your books and you had such a positive message, that even when we get older, we don’t have to feel old. That’s what I want! But all sorts of things in my body seem to be breaking down. I’m gaining weight. My skin is breaking out—that never used to happen! And my cycles feel more jagged and intense. But the worst of it is how crabby and short-tempered I am. My husband keeps telling me I’m always snapping at the children, and at him, and sometimes I don’t even realize it!”

The Strengths and Challenges of the Female Brain

Susan is like so many women I see. She thought she ate a healthy diet but started most days with coffee and a bagel and had a terrible sweet tooth throughout the day. She wanted to work out but could not find the time and consistently drank two glasses of wine at night to relax. There was one major part of her body that she never gave any thought to—her brain. This is ironic, because Susan’s brain governs every aspect of her life. Her brain decides what she eats and how much she sleeps. Her brain decides whether to snap at her children or to take a deep breath and try a different approach. And her brain decides whether Susan is going to live a long and vital life looking and feeling her best or whether she is going to age rapidly, look years older than she is, and perhaps even face a serious disorder like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s.

Of course, none of these decisions as necessarily conscious. But they were made by Susan’s brain nonetheless. And if Susan knew how to take care of her brain, how to give it the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual care it required, then she would be more likely to have a healthy, beautiful brain, which, in turn, would help Susan feel terrific and have the energy she needed to enjoy and be effective in her life.

Brain health is crucial for all my patients: men, women, and children alike. But I have noticed, over many years of practice, that my female patients face special challenges. As we will see in chapter 2, women’s brains have five special strengths: empathy, intuition, self-control, collaboration, and a little worry. Empathy allows women to be loving and nurturing. Intuition enables them to quickly grasp information that may not be obvious or easy to justify through logic. Self-control gives them better control over their impulses. Their collaborative gifts help them to work with others. And their tendency to worry, when it’s in the right proportions, keeps them focused on possible problems and alert to potential solutions.

So far, so good. But like all gifts, these have their dark sides. Empathy can morph into an overwhelming sense of the world riding on your shoulders, the feeling that you have to take care of everyone before your own needs ever get met. Intuition can awaken anxiety-provoking fears as you “know” something is not right without making sure to check it out or get more information.

The brain frequently can misperceive things. Self-control can turn into trying to overcontrol others. Being collaborative can all too easily turn into the feeling that you aren’t allowed to do anything until you’ve gotten agreement from everyone else, such as your co-workers, family, or spouse. And the worry that is so useful in small doses can stress you to the point where it hurts your brain and your body and won’t allow you to rest.

Susan too struggled with both the strengths and the challenges of the female brain. Like many women, she felt guilty no matter what she did. If she was home, she was thinking about work; if she was at work, she was thinking about home. A deeply empathetic and caring person, Susan took on everybody’s problems as if they were her own. She worried about her personal assistant, who was caring for an elderly mother; her husband, who had come back from the doctor with news of his high blood sugar; and her children, one of whom had just started to date. Susan worried about the learning-disabled students for whom her company produced educational materials. And she worried about her own parents; her mother seemed more forgetful and her father less engaged.

Wherever she looked, Susan felt as though there was another demand she should be meeting, another problem she should be solving, another person to whom she could be giving just a little bit more. She just felt as though whatever she did, she could never win. So of course when her husband approached her for sex or even for an affectionate night of cuddling in front of the TV, Susan couldn’t stay in the moment and enjoy their time together. She just couldn’t turn off her busy brain.

“Susan,” I said to her after hearing about her concerns, “it sounds like you are taking care of everyone in your life. But it is time to start taking much better care of yourself. Everyone you care about will be better if you are at your best.”

Susan looked at me and asked, “How do I start?”

Excerpted from Unleash the Power of the Female Brain by Daniel Amen

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