Donna Jackson Nakazawa is an award-winning journalist and internationally recognized speaker who explores the intersection of neuroscience, immunology, and human emotion.her work Wired, statistics, boston globe, Washington Post, health problems, child rearing, AARP MagazineWhen Glamour.
Below, Donna shares five key insights from her new book. Girls on the brink: Helping daughters thrive in a time of increased anxiety, depression and social mediaListen to the audio version read by Donna herself in the Next Big Idea app.
1. Research on the neurodevelopmental significance of chronic stress and adversity for girls’ mental health is still recent.
Until just a few years ago, research into the effects of stress on women’s mental health was skewed by the fact that these studies stemmed from a male research model. This means that most of what we thought we knew about mental health as girls enter and reach puberty was based on men’s brains. It wasn’t until the National Institutes of Health called for gender differences to be incorporated into preclinical and laboratory studies that neuroscientists began comparing male and female brains in studies on mental health and well-being. .
Prior to that, studies of the biology of women were rarely included in whatever aspect of mental health was explored. It was done.
According to the female neuroscientist leading the study, the main reason researchers ignored women was that they didn’t want those “pesky hormones” to get in the way of their findings. has been found to affect the way stress is processed by the brain in surprisingly powerful ways. It turned out to apply to puberty and puberty.
2. We lost the “middle year”.
Traditionally, children between the ages of 7 and 13 were given time and space to grow emotionally, socially and physically without stress. These years are the bridge between childhood and adolescence, and there is a lot going on in the brain during this time. , and characterized by higher benchmarks across academics and extracurricular activities.
As a result, our children are missing an important part of their childhood. Those years are the time to do things like hang out with friends, lie on the lawn and chat about whatever pops into your head. We replaced it with a rapidly changing culture and added it to social media. While it’s assumed that kids don’t use social media until she’s 13, research shows that most girls use social media much earlier than that.
“Traditionally, children between the ages of 7 and 13 are given time and space to grow emotionally, socially and physically without stress.”
Attention to appearance hits girls especially hard when they join social media. Their bodies are judged to the impossible standard of female perfection. Girls are more likely than boys to receive critical, derisive and sexist messages about their bodies, faces and appearance. This has a particularly strong effect on girls who scroll, stare, compare, despair, and feel unmeasured.
As one girl told me, “If you want to be popular in school, you must first be popular on Instagram. It’s about being willing, even if you’re just a kid.” Add to this the threat of global warming and school shootings. All of this is layered on top of the harsh reality that by growing up as women, girls face additional threats on a daily basis, such as sexual harassment, rape, and violence against women. This early exposure to judgments, hierarchical evaluations, and criticisms occurs at a time when the brain is most vulnerable during development.
3. As puberty hits, stress has a unique effect on girls.
Puberty is a very vulnerable period for a girl’s brain development. Of course, this also applies to boys, but especially to girls. When estrogen is added during puberty, it is especially powerful in enhancing the powerful stress response to unmitigated chronic stressors.
Evolutionarily speaking, estrogen is a very groovy hormone and a major regulator in the brain. Estrogen strengthens all body systems and organs, including the brain.
However, when women face major ongoing stressors in their environment, estrogen can amplify the body’s stress immune response in a way testosterone does not. There is a nature. This is why women suffer from autoimmune diseases at several times the rate of men. It is also the reason why more women suffer from Covid for longer periods.
During puberty, the brain takes into account all the social and emotional stressors it faces in life and rewires the brain based on that information. This is why we begin to see differences in the health of girls as they reach puberty. If a girl experiences overwhelming social and emotional stressors at the same time that estrogen kicks in, the negative effects of stress on health and development can be exacerbated.
“Estrogen can turn from an evolutionary advantage to a disadvantage.”
What’s more, girls today are hitting puberty at a younger age, at a time when their brains shouldn’t be rebuilding. The parts of the brain that help identify how to respond to social and emotional threats, how to put them in the right context, and when and how to ask adults for help are not yet wired and activated. No. This means that before the brain develops a scaffolding of resilience, it has emotions and experiences layers of stress like adults do.
4. Social and emotional threats are particularly damaging to our bodies and brains.
The brain is really a detective. Throughout childhood and adolescence, a child’s brain uses cues and messages from the environment to try to answer her one question. To really understand this, you have to go back in time.
Early in human history, survival relied heavily on close cooperation and co-operation within tribes. Being left out, teased, dismissed, or excluded by others is the last time someone gets meat from a communal fire or is fed other nutritious food. It was meant to be a person. On the outskirts of the tribe you are more easily attacked. Alarm calls may not be heard if predators or warring tribes are nearby. Being disrespected or gossiped may be a warning sign that you will soon be banished altogether. If exposed to the elements or predators, they are more likely to be injured or become infected.
Given the detrimental effects that can follow even the slightest social minority, over thousands of years our immune systems have evolved to limit the potential for physical danger when faced with social threats. It makes sense to be prepared.
UCLA professor George Slavich coined a convenient term for this. social safety theory. What this means is that there is an evolutionary mismatch between the unique pressures and stressors that girls face in modern life and the deep, long-standing evolutionary wiring within our brains. Being criticized on social media at a young age may not be physically dangerous, but it feels like it can be dangerous for your brain, especially your adolescent brain.
5. We need to turn down the stress machines in every girl’s body and brain while making deep connections.
Women’s bodies and brains are more susceptible to the negative effects of chronic stress only if the sources of stress are not mitigated by the environment. Even girls who are shy can lose their sense of who they are over time.
“Adolescent girls’ brains are incredibly agile. They take in and process many social cues at once.”
Remember that puberty and adolescence are times of possibility and promise in a healthy and supportive environment. When girls feel safe, they are less likely to engage or overwhelm stress mechanisms. Become. Adolescent girls’ brains are incredibly agile. They are taking in and processing many social cues at once. If these messages are encouraging and empowering for healthy connections, if we can remove many of the toxic stressors girls face today, the adolescent female brain will be absolutely perfect. increase. superpower.
As parents, we are not always aware of our daughter’s state of mind, and research backs this up. Faced with so much stress, they often don’t know how to ask us for help.
There are arts and techniques to communicating with girls in a nerve-protecting way and setting a foothold for the support they need from the larger community. Make it a good experience. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that a girl was 12 times more likely to thrive if her family members were able to answer yes to just one question for her.
Teenagers only speak when they feel they are being heard. The best way to feel they are being heard is to Listen more, talk less, advise lessTry not to jump in as a fixer or detective.
When your daughter comes to you with a problem and asks for your thoughts, try saying: you Because what you think is more important than what I think. ’ This gives her time to process her thoughts and vent what really bothers her, helping her feel seen, safe, valued, and heard. While she’s connecting with you more, she’ll learn that she’s important, and it’ll also help you promote deep connections and healthy, vital neural wiring in her brain.
To hear the audio version read by author Donna Jackson Nakazawa, download the Next Big Idea app today.