Young women are 'more likely to experience the emotions often associated with anxiety'

Teenage girls are suffering severe stress and depression due to greater challenges and higher expectations, writes Áilín Quinlan.

Something’s changed, says clinical psychologist Lisa Damour.

“Anxiety has always been part of life — and part of growing up,” she says.

But in the past 10 to 15 years, Damour has watched tension levels rise in girls, and it’s being underlined by research.

“Alarmingly, what we are observing on an intimate daily scale is confirmed by sweeping surveys. A recent report from the American Psychological Association found that adolescence can no longer be characterised as an exuberant time of life, full of carefree experimentation.

“Except for during the summer months, today’s teens now, for the first time, feel more stressed than their parents.

“They also experience the emotional and physical symptoms of chronic tension, such as edginess and fatigue, at levels that we used to see only in adults.” 

Studies also show a rise in the number of adolescents reporting that they are highly anxious and experiencing emotional problems.

But these trends do not affect our sons and daughters equally, Damour points out — girls suffer more.

Lisa Damour
Lisa Damour

“As confirmed by report after report, girls are more likely than boys to labour under feelings of psychological stress and tension,” she says, quoting research showing that a staggering 31% of girls and young women experience symptoms of anxiety, compared to 13% of boys and young men.

Studies tell us that, compared to boys, girls feel more pressure, and that they endure more of the physical symptoms of psychological strain, such as fatigue and changes in appetite.

“Young women are also more likely to experience the emotions often associated with anxiety.”

One study found that the number of teenage girls who said they often felt nervous, worried, or fearful jumped by 55% between 2009 and 2014, she reveals, but the figures remained unchanged for adolescent boys over the same time period.

“A different study found that anxious feelings are becoming more prevalent among all young people but are growing at a faster pace in girls.

“ These gendered trends seen in anxiety are also mirrored in the climbing rates of depression,” she warns, adding that between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of teenage girls experiencing depression rose from 13 to 17. For boys, that same measure moved from five to six percent.”

So what’s happening?

Partly, explains Damour, the increased opportunities enjoyed by today’s girls in terms of academics or sports for example, have inevitably resulted in greater challenges and higher expectations.

Many girls will expect to be an “incredible student, an incredible athlete and an incredible debater,” she explains, adding that on top of this, society insists girls “be agreeable, collaborative and not overly competitive.” And let’s not forget looks:

“Our culture sends an extra strong message to girls — that their value rides on how they look; this has always been true.” 

But social media has made everything way worse, she says. Its emphasis on image and the inevitable comparison-making which results — not just with remote models in glossy magazines or on billboards but with girls your daughter knows, can be difficult to live with. 

Girls are now bombarded by curated images of gorgeous girls — who sit right beside them in school. Social media, warns Damour, takes the traditional emphasis on surface appearance “and puts it on steroid.” 

Another cause of anxiety in girls is their tendency to ruminate and engage in worry patterns more so than boys, she observes, but she emphasises the decline of sleep as a major impact on the rise in anxiety amongst girls.

“We know technology is a major factor here. It’s very simple and also very powerful.” If you want someone to be fragile, she says bluntly, simply ensure that they don’t get enough sleep.

“Tech and tech in peoples’ bedrooms severely undermines peoples’ sleep and that is another reason why we are seeing rising rates of anxiety and depression.” 

How much sleep does your child need? Under-10s, says Damour, need at least 11 hours a night. From age 13 or 14 kids need an average of 10 hours a night and from 14 years and upwards an average of nine hours.

“They’re not getting that; they’re not even close. It’s so basic yet such a powerful explanation.”

And then there’s our misunderstanding about anxiety and about what childhood development entails, she warns. Increasingly, society views anxiety as unhealthy — but it’s not pathological, says Damour. 

Anxiety is generally a normal, healthy human function which alerts us to threat, and a certain amount of anxiety is inevitable for everyone.

Meanwhile, she says, modern parents are no longer as accepting of the traditional wisdom that the mere act of growing up means a child will encounter bumps in the road:

A lot of parents have been given the impression that if they do everything just so, things will go smoothly but that’s not how child development works. We’ve come to a place where parents now worry that a hard day or a hard week might derail their child — which is not true.

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour Atlantic Books €17. E-book also available.

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