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Recognizing Effects of Stress on Girls

Susceptibility to Stress and Illness
Lack of sleep and the impairment in thinking ability that results deprive teen girls of much needed skills to ward off the effects of stress. In addition, because of their compromised immune systems, they are more prone to illness. Getting sick and being absent from school cause additional stress because teens miss key class work or tests, fall behind their classmates, and have to work harder to catch up.

Increased Craving for Stimulants
Exhaustion also affects blood chemistry, provoking unhealthy cravings for caffeine, chocolate, sugar, and junk food. (Many teen girls would be horrified to learn that chronic sleepiness is associated with weight gain, which causes more stress.) In one school I visited, a student-conducted survey had found that the majority of girls drank up to three caffeinated beverages daily for extra energy.

Insufficient Exercise
Surveys also confirm a harmful decrease in physical activity among American females. A study conducted by the University of Michigan, for example, found that nine- to twelve-year-old children are spending 60 percent less time playing outdoors. Tracking girls over a period of ten years starting at age nine or ten, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reported an 83 percent decrease in median activity levels. Thus, by the time they are older teens, many engage in no regular exercise other than gym class.

Poorer Coping Abilities
With a distinct lack of downtime, girls are less able to relax, sleep, read for pleasure, and exercise. This undermines their ability to combat both anxiety and depression. Similarly, without the benefit of solitary activities such as writing in journals, reading, and creating music or art, girls can't soothe themselves as well. Teens today are caught in a classic catch-22 bind: Too stressed out to take good care of themselves, they are that much less capable of dealing with tremendous stress.

Diminished Brainpower
Chronic stress also more directly threatens girls' success by eroding their brainpower. Without the restorative and memory-building benefits of a restful night's sleep, girls can't concentrate or think as well, and they learn more slowly. In fact, research shows that staying up throughout the night results in the same level of mental acuity as being intoxicated above the legal limit for driving in most states. It is no wonder that sleep deprived people perform many kinds of tasks poorly.

Also, emotions powerfully affect cognition. This relationship is the focus of much scientific attention today. New methods of mapping brain activity are enabling neuroscientists to understand how feelings and cognition interact in the brain. For example, one group of researchers discovered that mild emotional states such as amusement and anxiety affect college students' short-term memory. Neither emotional state nor the task alone made a difference; what mattered was the mood subjects were in while they did specific tests.

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From Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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