An Interview with “Under Pressure” Author Dr. Lisa Damour
With a growing trend of childhood anxiety and depression, how do we best support and guide our girls today through fast-paced, social media-driven lives to feel faith in themselves? We asked Dr. Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of “Under Pressure,” to tackle this thorny question.
Parvati Magazine: As a psychologist and mother, you’ve seen changes in girls’ mental health. What prompted you to write this book?
Dr. Lisa Damour: In the last ten years of my practice, the discussion of stress and anxiety has moved to the fore, with young people and parents frequently talking about feeling stressed and anxious. And one thing that has long been true is that psychologists don’t see stress and anxiety as inherently problematic. Most of the time, these are just a normal and expected part of the day. What we want to try to accomplish is more of a middle path, where we recognize stress as being a growth-giving, durability-building part of life. The anxiety provoked by stress is an alarm system that is helpful for growth. It’s part of the spectrum of our human experiences.
So, part of what prompted me to write “Under Pressure” was trying to share what clinicians and researchers have long understood about the normal and healthy aspects of stress and anxiety. I also want to equip parents with effective strategies for managing the stress and anxiety that does arise for girls as they grow up. My practice as a psychologist does inform my parenting: it has made me more compassionate toward parents about how complex and challenging raising children can be.
Parvati Magazine: How do girls deal with stress and anxiety differently than boys?
Dr. Lisa Damour: There’s probably not a biological basis for expressing affect in one way or another, but we do know that when girls are upset, they are more likely to collapse in on themselves, whereas boys are more likely to act out. When girls are upset, they are more likely to become anxious and depressed. They are also more likely than boys to talk about it, which may alert grownups to their suffering. When boys are upset, they may be more likely to express that as anger or to get themselves in trouble, and they also may be less likely to talk about it. They may seek distraction as a coping strategy.
Parvati Magazine: Are the stressors that girls face today much different than in previous times? What explains the rise in anxiety disorders in girls and young women?
Dr. Lisa Damour: I do think there are some new pressures that today’s girls are facing. One is that we keep adding to girls’ plates without taking anything away. Girls now are achieving at academic levels that we used to dream of, and yet the cultural expectations that they be attractive, agreeable, and pleasant have not changed at all. They just have so much more work than we did in school, and our expectations for how much content high schoolers are going to master has really increased in a few decades. We have to be cautious of a “more is more” philosophy. It’s such a simple explanation for rising rates of distress.
There is also the introduction of technology, which seems to have taken over our lives, and which has had an impact on sleep. Kids sleep much less than they should and much less than they used to. They have technology in their bedrooms keeping them awake until late at night. Both the light and also the content of what they encounter keeps them awake: they see a post on Instagram right before bed, and it makes them upset or excited, and then they don’t sleep so well.
Parvati Magazine: What are the unique challenges facing parents and their daughters today, in the age of digital media?
Dr. Lisa Damour: That is the million-dollar question everybody is trying to figure out. Certainly, technology is not all bad for adults or kids. It has definitely enhanced our lives in many ways; however, I do think we want to protect what we know is really important for development: kids’ need for sleep, and how sleep affects their capacity to concentrate on their work. We also need to protect their ability to have effective one-on-one, in-person conversations. I would have parents worry less about trying to prevent or block technology for its own sake, and instead put their energies into these elements.