Busting myths about teen girl anxiety
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez
If you’re concerned about the rise in teenage stress and anxiety levels, you’re not alone.
Teenagers themselves are concerned.
Whether or not they personally experience anxiety and depression, 7 in 10 teenagers view both as major problems among their peers. According to this same recent survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted by the Pew Research Forum, young people’s concern about their peers’ mental health cuts across diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic lines.
In our work at the Fuller Youth Institute, I rarely go a day without hearing about, reading about, being asked about, or grieving over teenage anxiety and depression.
The crisis seems to be experienced more powerfully and prevalently by US girls. In Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, researcher, therapist, and parent Lisa Damour highlights the intensity of the crisis for adolescent girls:
- Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of teenage girls experiencing depression increased from 13 to 17 percent. During the same time period, that statistic moved from 5% to 6% for boys.
- A larger portion of 13- to 17-year-old girls report feeling tense or nervous every day or “almost” every day (36% for girls vs. 23% for boys).
- Overall almost one-third of girls and women (31%) experience symptoms of anxiety, compared to 13% of boys and young men.
I am a woman, Dave and I are raising two girls, and I care deeply about—and work proactively to—help females of all ages reach their God-given potential. So I devoured Under Pressure in one recent long plane flight.
Based largely on the research sprinkled throughout Under Pressure as well as my growing understanding of the information and experiences underlying adolescent mental health challenges, I think it’s important to bust four major myths. As parents, leaders, and mentors, these myths hinder us from empathizing with, and bringing support and freedom to, the girls we are raising, mentoring, and serving.
Tweet: As parents, leaders, and mentors, 4 myths can hinder us from empathizing with the girls we are raising, mentoring, and serving.
Myth #1: Stress and anxiety are bad.
Without stress and anxiety, you and I likely wouldn’t be alive today. Neither would the girls we care about. Stress and anxiety are triggered by what we perceive to be dangerous situations (e.g., a car is coming right at me) that activate our “fight-or-flight” response. Our adrenaline and heart rate increase and oxygen rushes to our muscles as we prepare to either face the potential danger or run away. Anxiety is an essential alarm system, but it can run us ragged when it spins out of control.
Girls’ struggles increase when they disregard the warning signs their brains and bodies are giving them, and are conditioned either covertly or overtly to feel anxious about their anxiety, and stressed about their stress. In fact, while Damour used to work with clients to try to keep anxiety from being their “first response,” she now often doesn’t try to fight that battle. Instead, she works with them on more generative and helpful “second responses.” In other words, even if a girl initially experiences physical or emotional symptoms of anxiety, helping her figure out what to do next may be more healthy and productive than trying to get her to “stop” that initial anxious response.
Myth #2: Stress and anxiety are basically the same.
Both are psychologically uncomfortable, but “stress” is typically a feeling of emotional tension or mental strain while “anxiety” is the fear, dread, or panic that often follows the stress. We can better aid our girls when we help them identify their initial causes of stress, and distinguish those from their subsequent anxiety. That way they can pinpoint what first causes unease and separate that cause from their body and mind’s strong reaction.
Myth #3: Stress is mostly a result of major tragedy and trauma.
The reality is that any change can create stress—even “positive” change. That’s why psychologists often sort stress into three distinct domains, the first of which is life events. Tragedy and major trauma fall into this domain, but so do other “good” life events, like getting a coveted role in a play, joining a sports team, or attending a new school.
The second domain is called daily hassles. For our teenage girls (and really, for all of us), these add up. In fact, one study examining the effect of major negative life events (such as the death of a loved one) found that it was actually the amount of daily hassles that resulted from the major life event that correlated with the degree of emotional upheaval, not the major loss itself.[ii]
The third domain, chronic stress, often results when basic life circumstances are consistently difficult. Living in a dangerous community, caring for a sick family member, or relentless achievement pressure are common forms of chronic stress faced by teenage girls.
Too often, those of us who are trying to support girls have an internal radar that is most closely attuned to only one type of stressor: life events. And even then, we are usually more focused on “negative” life events than “positive” life events, and we disregard the cumulative effect of daily hassles and chronic stress altogether. This lack of attention ultimately hurts our girls.
Myth #4: Girls’ anxiety comes from the same source as boys’.
When it comes to the pressures teens face, academics tops the list: 61% of teens say they feel significant pressure to get good grades. While boys typically view school with more confidence, girls view grades as a telling measure of what they can achieve and thus take grades more personally, often making them more anxious about school.[iii]
The second greatest source of stress, which is “the pressure to look good” and is reported by 29% of teenagers overall, is more likely to be felt by teenage girls than boys (35% for girls compared with 23% of boys).
The third greatest source of stress, which is fitting in socially, is experienced by 28% of teenagers overall. Social media exacerbates that peer pressure to fit in; one recent study revealed that teenagers who view social media images of peers seeming “happy and pretty” experience lower self-esteem. Given their greater social media usage, girls, more than boys, are more prone to suffering from these online social comparisons.[iv]
When we understand the misconceptions about stress and anxiety, we are more effectively equipped to raise, mentor, and serve healthy and confident young women.
Tweet: When we understand the misconceptions about stress and anxiety, we are more effectively equipped to raise, mentor, and serve healthy and confident young women.
In my next post, I’ll dive more deeply into how busting these four major myths can help us better listen to and love the girls in our families, churches, and neighborhoods, as well as my favorite 7 strategies for responding to girls wading—or drowning—in stress and anxiety.
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Today’s young people are anxious. Teach them they’re not alone. Faith in an Anxious World is a 4-week high school curriculum that will empower you with language and tools to respond to young people in your care, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living.
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Statistics from Lisa Damour, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, xvii, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz and Nikki Graf, Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers, Pew Research Center, Feb 20, 2019.
[ii] Damour, 8.
[iii] Damour, 142.
[iv] Damour, 90.