We live in a world of stress. Whether we are stressed by work, money, relationships or a busy day with not enough time to accomplish all we want to, we are constantly under duress and want just one thing: to rid ourselves of the discomfort of stress. Girls want this too!
There is the inevitable stress that accompanies girlhood as she is changing in every way all at once. According to Louann Brizendine, M.D., author of The Female Brain, "These new hormonal surges assure that all of her female-specific brain circuits will become even more sensitive to emotional nuance, such as approval and disapproval, acceptance, and rejection." As she is becoming more sensitive, she often faces new and scary social situations without the necessary life tools.
When stressed, girls try to feel better. This often manifests as an urgent need to go on social media; she is hardwired to seek social connections for comfort, an accusative phrase such as, "You never have time for me," or a shut down response with the minimal, "I'm fine" when we ask about her day (which by the way rarely means she is fine.)
She is not meaning to be defiant; she is trying to relieve her stress. Yet, none of these choices do the trick. Stress, when unprocessed and unattended to, likes to linger in her body. It can make her feel sick, anxious and worried, and, over time, unaddressed stress can lead to depression. Also, it sets her up for an even more intense experience when the next stressor comes her way.
That is why I have learned the importance of daily conversations and connections with girls and the opportunity to unburden so they can share all that is on their minds in the safety of a nurturing relationship. One of the most important tools I feel I am equipping girls with is the ability to better understand their stress, and how to feel happier, healthier, and empowered. Here are the ideas I know are working that you can try too:
Teach her to identify examples of stressors
So often we think of the stress related to a presentation or quiz. Yet a stressor can be anything that prompts feelings of discomfort. Stressors can be brought on by conflict with a friend or being put on the spot by a teacher, poor performance or perceived failure, comparing herself to peers, self-criticism, or fear of missing out. When she starts to understand that triggers for stress come in all these forms (and are normal and to be expected), she can feel ready to identify her stressors.
Ensure she pays attention to her body's stress response
When I ask girls to check in with what their body shows them when stressed, they easily share these signs: feeling red or hot in the face, sweaty palms and feet, racing heart, headache or butterflies in their stomach. I can add to their list with indicators such as: quicker breathing, muscle soreness or tightness, aches and pains and fatigue. By turning inward to check in with her body, she can learn that her body is an invaluable resource for her and that she can trust her body to show her something doesn't feel right.
Explain to her that her body will instinctively choose fight, flight or freeze
Without thinking, her stress response system will be activated when stressed. This is a good thing as her brain is sending signals to her body that she is in "danger" and needs to protect herself. She will automatically want to "fight" often with words of aggression and resistance, "flight" by running away from a situation or "freeze," as in she won't be able to do or say anything. She needs to know these responses so that she has awareness that her body is trying to help her to stay safe and that although these responses can alleviate the stressors temporarily, they do not actually help her properly process stress.
Help her to process stress
This is work and takes time, practice and patience, but once she can learn how to make healthier and conscious choices and move through stress, she can become a stress expert and complete the stress cycle.
This begins with the simple act of finding calm. Start with deep breathing: five seconds of inhaling, holding for five seconds and ending with five seconds of exhaling. Try other calming techniques like simple stretching and yoga poses or moving her body by going for a walk or playing on the trampoline; physical activity is shown to be one of the most effective stress relievers.
She may want to do something quiet like read a book, draw, colour or make a more active choice such as singing and dancing to her favourite tunes. She may need a good cry or a soothing hug. By learning to calm her sympathetic nervous system, she is helping her body find equilibrium and balance, and this takes as long as she needs. It is then that we can have the conversation about the stressor that triggered her response. In a calm and regulated state, she can actually hear us and process words and she is much more likely to learn and grow from her experience.
Stress is prevalent. It can surprise her and it can be very difficult to work through. She will want to avoid stress altogether so she feels better and back to normal. Yet avoiding stress compounds the problem. When we help her go though the stress cycle and show her she has the capability of doing something about stress, she is that much more equipped to handle our stressed out world.