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

under pressure

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.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

coddling of american mind

For anyone who works with or parents a young person who has entered college starting the year 2013, you will have noticed a difference from those who started at any time prior.  There is a rate of anxiety unlike any generation that has preceded it – and it is compounded by parents who perpetuate the sense of fragility that these students have by continuing to overprotect them and college administrations who do the same.  Why?  The researchers who have written this book give explanations based on the following 3 “untruths” that get perpetuated by these parents and college administrators:

  1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.  (Actually – it makes you stronger.  But we still strive to shield our young from any and all potential harm.  This of course deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with adversity.)
  2. Always trust your feelings.  (NO!  Our feelings are often inaccurate.  We need to explore and learn and find that there really isn’t a ghost hiding under the bed, and that girl over there looking at us might not hate us, but might just be shy herself.  We need to look at facts, not at just our own perceptions.)
  3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.  (This may be the most dangerous of the untruths, creating the us-vs-them mentality that informs the current toxic discourse on college campuses today.  There is so much more intolerance of opposing views and so much less ability to have civil conversation about anything at all controversial that even professors are shying away from anything that may smack of real import in their classrooms.  This is actually a threat to education itself.)

The book expounds upon these ideas, given fascinating – and often appalling – examples of real incidents on college campuses and some high schools where these theories and ideas have come about.  They also expound upon what might have caused this situation and what might improve it.

As someone who not only has children exactly this age and who works professionally with students at a college, I fully appreciate the message of this book.  It is a harsh statement about how restricting free play time, scheduling so many activities, making the college application process so all-consuming that it has to start in preschool (!) — this takes away from a persons ability to develop normal self sufficiency.  There is no room for failure from which to learn valuable life lessons.  And when we don’t learn how to fail, we don’t learn that we can ever be wrong – and that is quite dangerous.

This is an outstanding book that I have to recommend as a MUST READ!