Helping Our Girls Reframe Anxiety: Lessons From Lisa Damour

Popular perceptions of stress often have us working to protect our young people from feeling it in any way. The truth is, there is a good kind of stress, such as the growth that comes from learning and expanding one's horizons. This is the kind of stress we want to teach our young people (and ourselves) to confront. This will help to protect our young people from negative stress associated with burnout and lack of confidence so typical, sadly, for so many of our girls today.

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As an educator and researcher, one of my primary missions is to weave theory and practice together in creative and useful ways for the classroom and to help others do the same. To this end, I have found myself immersed in ways to assist students in finding joy in their daily lives while simultaneously maintaining balance in competitive academic settings and social media landscapes that demand perfection. Whenever literature comes out that focuses on strategies to help our students tackle life’s big challenges and relocate joy (if it ever went missing), I am quick to pick it up.

With this said, I ordered Lisa Damour’s new book entitled Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls and I have been devouring the lessons she shares for helping our girls overcome and harness anxiety and stress to their benefit; there is no time like the present to unpack this topic. For this post, I would like to share some of these important and life-changing lessons and discuss how I see them being practiced in the classroom.

Growing & Learning — the good kind of stress: Damour’s book is prefaced upon the idea that, in her words, “stretching beyond familiar limits doesn’t always feel good, but growing and learning — the keys to school and much of life — can’t happen any other way” (New York Times, 2018). From this perspective, the accompanying stress associated with change and growth is welcome and shows our young people that they are accomplishing something great. No need to feel stressed about being stressed from this perspective, in fact, this stress can help our girls be happy and successful!

This book is chock full of new ways to reframe stress and anxiety in our student’s lives and provides practical ways to help them see the positive and perfectly normal physiological effects of the stress response. Damour shares that the fight or flight response to common everyday stressors can actually be a good thing; it prepares our girls for a challenge or tells them when they need to remove themselves from a potentially harmful situation, like say, a party where underage drinking or drug use is taking place. They should listen to this ancient response and harness its power, rather than avoid it.

In fact, Damour warns against avoidance of stressful situations whenever possible. Though we tend to want to protect our girls from potentially anxiety-provoking situations, this is not doing them any favours. We need to give our students an opportunity to tackle stressful situations and come up with strategies to harness and utilize the stress response to their benefit. This takes practice, as most accomplishments in life do.

Strategies to move forward: The most powerful lesson provided by Damour, in my opinion, is the authentic, real-world strategies she offers up to help our girls tackle tough situations; in the classroom, at home, and with their peers. Especially powerful for the classroom is the approach she takes with the student who over prepares for all school assessments; a strategy that is unsustainable and can really increase stress (the bad kind) for girls at school (many of us can picture that person or child in our lives now — maybe it’s you!).

Damour mentioned a client whom she counseled to study efficiently and not necessarily longer to achieve great results. This requires confidence in oneself that they are capable of doing the work without over preparing and burning out. She notes that this strategy tends to be more common with boys, and may explain the confidence gap for women entering the workforce. Our girls need to believe in their skills and have confidence in their abilities to succeed, and this starts in school.

This case struck a personal note with me. To this day, I still overprepare for every class, every presentation and every meeting. It’s ingrained in me from my school days and my intense desire to please those around me; it’s classic girl behaviour and it’s hard to let go after so many years. This was a good wake up call to commit to quality over quantity in my own professional life. I think catching this trait at a younger age could really help our overachieving girls break this habit with a little coaching.

I highly recommend reading the work of Lisa Damour for yourself, for your children or for your students; it is personable and presents an expert and practiced take on reframing anxiety for our girls; an important topic now and always.


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