Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour, PhD

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Working exclusively with young women over the past 15 years, I have seen a frightening trend of increased anxiety among them.  There are many explanations of why this is so, but there are few answers as to how to help them cope.  In this concise, articulate, and surprisingly upbeat book, Lisa Damour guides primarily parents in how to gently and supportively help their daughters to confront the sources of their stress and anxiety and in doing so, to combat them.  As she points out, quite aptly, when one shies away from the cause of the anxiety, most often that anxiety only builds.  Significantly, too, Damour does not demonize stress and anxiety.  She points out that without stress, we might not push ourselves to do our best to achieve our goals; likewise, without the anxiety response, we might not be alert to dangerous situations.  Stress and anxiety are only bad when they reach such high levels as to interfere with our normal functioning – that is when we need intervention.

The writing is insightful, readable, and filled with vignettes that engage the reader.  Damour relates experiences with her clients as well as her own daughters, which make the issues she discusses come alive and tangible.  She divides the issues into those that relate to girls in the home, girls in relationships with other girls, girls in relationships with boys, girls at school and girls as they are portrayed in our culture – and each of the stressors that are inherent to each of these realms.  There are helpful tips along the way, lots of analogies, and very wise, concrete suggestions.

One takeaway I loved was her response when a young woman wasn’t sure how to respond to a conflict.  Our culture conditions women to be agreeable and girls are expected to be and generally are particularly sensitive to others’ feelings.  She summarized peoples’ responses to conflict as being either a bulldozer, a doormat, a doormat with spikes (passive aggressive responder), or (the desirable response) a pillar (stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else).  I thought this was a great way to think about how we respond to conflict and and how we can guide others to do so in a constructive way.

I don’t think all of the advice in this book is exclusive to only girls.  Some of it is generalizable to boys as well.   But there is certainly plenty of evidence that girls experience more stress and anxiety than boys and that it is taking its toll on this generation of girls.  Here are, finally, tools to utilize to help them resist this scourge and be resilient.

Educated by Tara Westover

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Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in.  Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this.  So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not.  So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms.   And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it.  This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.

This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara.  The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering.  It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so.  The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.

I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother.  She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara.  There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara.  That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being).   Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself.  But no, she did not.  Such. a disappointment for Tara.  No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.

The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage.  I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.

I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.  It has been so powerful.  Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways.  Sadly, the worst is toward children.

 

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

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Addy Kurc tried desperately to make it home from France to his small Polish town of Radom for Passover, but in March of 1939, as Hitler and his German army was blocking travel through Europe, this was not to be.  The Kurc family tried to feign normalcy, going through the familiar seder rituals, but each of the members of this tight-knit family sensed that there was something about to change in their world.  Never, could they have imagined the horrors they would be facing, however, as Poland would be complicit in the anihiliation of millions of Jewish people along with Germany.  And never would they believe how far they’d travel and how many years it would be until they would be celebrating Passover together again as a Kurc family.

I wasn’t looking for a Holocaust novel, and when I realized that that is what this was, I almost put it aside.  But the writing was so compelling I couldn’t.  There was something about this story, about these characters, that I had to continue with it.  I had to know if Addy was reunited with his family.  I had to know if each of his siblings (and there were 5 altogether) survived the war, and if his baby niece actually made it through as well.  And how, if it were at all possible, would his parents survive the war, as they were elderly although not frail when the war broke out.  The characters were very compelling and each went through such harrowing experiences.

And that was even before I knew that the story was true!  Addy was the grandfather of the author!

I know that especially in this very difficult time, when we hear about hate in the news almost every day, with racial tensions, police brutality, shootings, and hate and bias incidents, it is hard to read about the Holocaust.  On the other hand, I feel it is crucial in this time not to forget what it can grow to be.  We cannot  get complacent and think the it can’t get there again.

That’s what they believed in Radom in 1939.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

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Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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The best perk of writing a book blog is that I’ve gotten some fantastic recommendations from fellow book lovers.  This may be one of my favorites — thank you, Larry and Jim!

Eleanor Oliphant starts out in this story actually believing herself to be completely fine.  She is very much self-sufficient – she has a job, she has keeps herself clean and nourished and has her very practical routine which gets her through each week.  When she suddenly sees the man of her dreams at a party, a rock singer who is very handsome and would likely satisfy her Mummy’s vision of who would be sophisticated enough for her, she decides to go on a mission to spruce herself up a bit so that when she actually meets this man, she’ll convince him that they are meant for each other.  In the course of her doing this, a sudden incident with a co-worker, becomes a distracting adventure that opens up Eleanor’s world and enables her to see how she can truly heal toward becoming completely “fine.”

The writing in this book is magical.  The author writes of pain with humor and raw honesty all at the same time.  There is no over-dramatization, there is no explosiveness.  It’s quiet and understated and because it is subtle, even awkward because it is from Eleanor’s voice, it sneaks straight into your heart.  It made me laugh out loud but it also revealed darkness and sadness that almost choked me.  Few authors can do this with such grace and tenderness.

Eleanor develops her first real friendship with a coworker, Raymond, whom she finds initially almost irritating, with his smoking, his unkempt scruffiness, and his difficulty with being punctual.  But she learns that what really matters is that he is also kind and generous, and loyal – and that he is there for her when she really needs someone to be there for her.  That this is actually what friends do.  She’s just never had this before.

This is a beautiful book from beginning to end – the kind that you don’t want to put down but that you don’t want to end either.  I am reluctant to start the next book because I just want to live with these characters for a bit.

You will too – I promise!

This is truly a MUST READ!

 

 

The 100 Year Old Man Who Jumped Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

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This delightful story is a sort of Swedish Forrest Gump for world history.  Allan Karlsson, on the morning of his 100th birthday, decides that he needs to take back control of his life and leave the Old Folks Home – via the window.  Little does he know that he’d be starting out on a madcap adventure.  But then again, madcap adventures are not exactly new to Allan, as we learn in the flashbacks that tell of his amusingly political, apolitical life.

I loved this book!  The writing is so understated and subtle that it makes the crazy events in the story that much more outrageous and entertaining.  I could not help laughing out loud at some of the dialogue – it is brilliant.  And the way in which the tale winds around historical events is playful and so imaginative.

I haven’t recommended a “must-read” in a long time – but here’s a most definite!  You are bound to love this one.