In the last decade, rates of anxiety-related disorders in teenagers have steadily risen, particularly in girls. Researchers and psychologists posit several hypotheses about why these rates are on the rise — from digital hyperconnectivity to heightened external pressures to simply a greater awareness, and therefore diagnosis, of mental health concerns.
Whatever the causes, Dr. Lisa Damour has hopeful news for parents and teens: first, some degree of stress and anxiety is not only normal but essential for human growth. And if those levels become untenable, there are tested strategies for reining anxiety back in.
Damour, a psychologist and author of the new book “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” has spent decades working with adolescent girls and their families. In recent years, she has noticed a change in how society views stress. “Somehow a misunderstanding has grown up about stress and anxiety where our culture now sees both as pathological,” said Damour. “The upshot of that is that we have adults and young people who are stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious.”
Anxiety is a normal and healthy function, according to Damour, and much of the anxiety that teenagers express is a sign that they are aware of their surroundings, mindful of their growing responsibilities, and frightened of things that are, in fact, scary. Adults can make a difference simply by “reassuring them that, a great deal of time, stress is just operating as a friend and ally to them.”
Change and stress go hand in hand — even if a change is positive. Teenagers’ lives are filled with change: Their bodies and brains are transforming, they usually switch schools at least once between grades 5 and 12, their academic workload is increasing, and social relationships are constantly evolving. The anxiety that comes with stretching to face these and other challenges is part of how humans develop strength, said Damour.
When she talks with teenage girls, she uses the metaphor of exercise: To develop physical strength, you have to slowly push your levels of physical endurance, building up strength through resistance training. Similarly, said Damour, “you should see [a challenge] as an extraordinary weight training program for your mind. You are going to walk out of it tougher and stronger than you have ever been.”
Stress, Emotion and the Teenage Brain
Sometimes anxiety and stress reach levels that impede a girl’s ability to navigate life effectively. That said, Damour cautions that an emotional outburst — in and of itself — is not a reliable indicator of mental health. “If you are raising a normally developing teenage daughter, she will have meltdowns. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent that,” said Damour.
Of course, when it’s your daughter who is sobbing on the bathroom floor, it’s hard to keep this in perspective. “When it’s your kid, it’s terrifying,” Damour said. “A lot of parents are frightened and paralyzed in that moment. They wonder: Is this a sign that something is really wrong or that my kid is really out of control?”
This is where a little neuroscience might be helpful, said Damour. “The adolescent brain is very gawky and vulnerable to emotion.” That gawkiness stems from the extraordinary brain development that happens in adolescence. “The brain is upgrading, but in the same order as it initially developed,” said Damour, from the more primitive regions that house emotions to the more sophisticated regions that regulate perspective and problem-solving.
The result? “When she’s calm, a teenage girl can outreason any adult. When she’s upset, her primitive regions can hijack the whole system and take it down.”
When your daughter is emotionally overwhelmed, give her a little time. Damour said it’s easy to see a meltdown as a fire that’s about to turn into a conflagration. But a storm is a more accurate metaphor. “You can’t stop a storm,” she said. “You have to wait it out. But these storms do pass. The brain will reset itself. Don’t try to stop the storm or fix it in the moment.”
Instead, sit with her, go on a walk together, watch a funny show, or offer her a cup of tea, advised Damour. After weathering a few storms successfully, “parents and teenagers get to discover that — all by itself — the storm will pass. At that point, either the problem completely evaporates and she moves on, or the girl can now look at the problem with clear eyes, assess it with her prefrontal lobe back online, and figure out what she wants to do.”
– KQED News
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