Helping our Girls Reframe Anxiety – it’s not all bad!

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Hello Fellow Educators/Parents,

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 on Amazon.

With this said, I preordered 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. 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.

I will preface that I believe social-emotional learning should be taught cross-curricularly and embedded in every teacher’s instruction. To extend, I would say all schools need a plan for teaching social-emotional learning in their classrooms whenever possible. It should be deliberate, well phased-out and authentic. Young people should be able to use these strategies in their everyday lives and harness them outside of the classroom when they need them most. Damour offers up these strategies in a way that makes you feel like you are sitting with a cup of tea, having an informal conversation with a very talented and caring girlfriend. What a treat.

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.

I see a powerful connection here between Damour’s works and the work of Dr. Broderick, and her Learning to Breathe resource. I can’t think of a more useful way to practice these data-driven perspectives than by teaching young people to ‘ride the waves’ of their emotions through mindfulness practices (see my blog “Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream’ for more on this book and strategies to try at home and in the classroom).

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 overprepares 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 student in our lives now). 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 overpreparing 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 over-prepare 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 also loved the idea of the ‘glitter jar’ as an analogy to the teenage brain in crisis and the strategy of shaking a real one up and letting the brain calm while the glitter settles. I need my own glitter jar sometimes – so, thanks Lisa.

I am excited to take these practices and new thinking on stress and anxiety into my classroom and advising work. I have already made myself a ‘glitter jar,’ and have plans for a mini-unit focused on reframing stress for our grade 9’s. I’m giddy about it. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your expertise with us; our girls need it!

L

 

 

 

 

 

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