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Anxiety: Addressing Not Avoiding

I write this blog after having just finished author and psychotherapist Dr. Lisa Damour’s new book entitled Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. Dr. Damour is a past LINCWell speaker at St. Clement’s and continues to be resource for me and, by extension, our community.

Damour’s book aims to clarify the difference between stress and anxiety, and to explain how each can, depending on their levels, be either helpful or harmful for our girls and young women. A little stress, and even anxiety, are normal and are our body’s way of preparing us for taking on a challenge. Recognizing the difference, and being able support in a way that fosters growth for our girls and young women is key.

Damour opens her book with a quotation from Anna Freud who said, “It is not the presence or the absence, the quality, or even the quantity of anxiety which allows predictions as to future mental health or illness; what is significant in this respect is only the ability to deal with the anxiety.”

As I read Damour’s book, I kept coming back to the word ‘confronting’ in her title.

Ultimately, it is our role- as parents and educators- to guide and support our girls and students as they confront stress and anxiety: to lend an ear, a sense of calm, and most of all provide reminders that avoiding that which worries us can make things worse. As Damour writes, “Avoidance doesn’t just feed anxiety, it serves up a two course meal.” The ability to step back, to put things into perspective, and to approach things calmly is of tremendous benefit.

Having said that, I am concerned that as our girls’ parents, teachers and role-models, we have work to do. If we truly wish to help our girls ‘confront’ their fears rather than avoid them, then we must do the same.

It is very easy to see a girl spinning, sad, disappointed or worried, and to want to immediately support her by rallying behind her- to show her that we believe in her. But this, I believe, comes at a cost. As Damour, a parent of two girls, writes, “As parents we want to respond, not react, to our daughter’s meltdowns….When adults respond calmly and without being dismissive, girls can see that we are taking the situation in stride. This is a lot more reassuring to adolescents than a frenetic, all-hands-on-deck reaction, which signals their crisis scares us as much as it scares them.”

My Mum, who I know reads my weekly blog, will most likely chuckle as she reads this next bit. I think parents, as the adults in their daughters’ lives, need to step back, reflect on their role, and then step forward in a way that isn’t about being an agent- or representative- of their girls but, rather, someone who is going to listen and support, but then let their daughters sort things out. Probably as most of our parents did.

An article by Damour in The Globe and Mail this weekend entitled “It’s The Girls Who Suffer,’ reminds us that, while we think things for our daughters today are entirely different than they were for us growing up, there are some things that remain the same. With respect to the complex issue of social media in our girls’ lives, Damour’s observation that “adolescents aren’t enthralled by technology- they’re enthralled by the peers on the other end of the technology they happen to be using,” reminds us that those who are now adults, also lived “peer-obsessed pasts….we just had lame technology.”

Damour- and many others – point out that, while much has changed including the rise of anxiety and stress for girls, it doesn’t mean that we, as the adults in their lives, should jump into the spin.  As Damour writes at the end of her book, “The world asks more of our daughters than it ever has before, and it now offers them more, too. As parents, we’re at our best when we help our girls advance, not retreat, in the face of the challenges and opportunities they will inevitably encounter.”

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