According to Dr. Damour’s latest book, “Under Pressure,” there is a notable increase in stress and anxiety among young girls. The Ohio author will visit The Wellington School on Wednesday and the Columbus School for Girls on Thursday.

To Lisa Damour, evaluating girls’ social relationships in middle schools is like studying chemistry.


“Girls get themselves into a compound, and it’s a group of atoms,” explained Damour, a 49-year-old psychologist based in Shaker Heights, near Cleveland. “There may be a free-floating atom that they all like, but they’re not going to add it to the compound because it’ll mess up the chemistry they have.”


Insights gained while trying to make sense of such behavioral patterns — gleaned over 20 years of clinical practice — have informed Damour’s academic papers, bestselling books and New York Times column on adolescence.


The author will speak about the ris



e in stress and anxiety among girls during a sold-out appearance at the Wellington School at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, and at the Columbus School for Girls at 7 p.m. Thursday, for which tickets remain.


According to Damour, research shows a 55 percent increase in the number of girls who reported feeling nervous, worried or fearful from 2009 to 2014. It’s a subject she tackles in her latest book, “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”


“Historically, we've seen that girls are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as boys,” said Damour, who also consults at the Laurel School, an all-girls private school in Northeast Ohio.


That discrepancy exists, in part, because girls often experience their distress as anxiety, whereas boys have a tendency to act out and get themselves in trouble, she said.


Damour believes the first step in tackling this issue is to help normalize stress and anxiety for young people.


“(It’s) a normal and healthy protective function that all humans come equipped with that lets us know when it's time to pay attention or be on our toes,” she said. “School is supposed to be stressful. That’s part of growing at school, and you’re not going to learn if you don’t experience some degree of feeling pushed.”


At the same time, stress and anxiety can reach unhealthy levels, so Damour provides adults with strategies for effective management. Her book is divided into chapters addressing girls’ relationships at home, girls among girls, girls among boys, girls at school and girls in society.


Damour’s approach uses anecdotes from real-life situations as teachable moments, which can help young people face, rather than avoid, stressors.


She recalled, for example, her experience with a girl who was distressed about the possibility of not making the varsity basketball team. Adults trying to help a girl in a similar predicament might show empathy, empower her to come up with a solution, help her accept the situation if there is no solution, and find a happy distraction.


Damour covers another challenging factor in young girls’ lives: social media. She encourages parents to be mindful of the toll that social-media comparison can take on self-esteem, especially among girls.


“We can’t always stand between our daughters and their normal inclination to evaluate themselves against one another, but we can help them gain some stress-relieving perspective about their online worlds,” Damour wrote in “Under Pressure.”


And though interacting with peers on social media can be fun, young people might need to be reminded that time away is advantageous for one’s mental health.


“We do have to be mindful that we still probably need a break and some downtime,” Damour said, “where they are just quiet and centered and not maintaining all of the activity of having a lot of social connection around them.”


Even after decades of observing “universal” concerns among girls, Damour said she always finds new things to learn.


“I will never come to the end of my mastery of understanding adolescents, and adolescent girls in particular,” she said. “They are endlessly fascinating to me.”


ethompson@columbusdispatch.com


@miss_ethompson