Anger without agency, exploring the experiences of stress in adolescent girls - Bjorling en Singh (2017) - Article

Besides the fact that adolescent girls report more stress compared to boys, they may also be more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress, such as anxiety and depression. This is due to processing stress differently. Even though this is known, little is known about how adolescent girls experience stress. This is partly due to problems with the definition of stress in health-related research. Stress tends to be conceptualized and operationalized broadly. This broad range of definitions and operations of the term weakens the internal and external validity of the concept. Because the concept of stress is individualized and ambiguous, the research requires a qualitative approach.


Besides the fact that adolescent girls report more stress compared to boys, they may also be more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress, such as anxiety and depression. This is due to processing stress differently. Even though this is known, little is known about how adolescent girls experience stress. This is partly due to problems with the definition of stress in health-related research. Stress tends to be conceptualized and operationalized broadly. This broad range of definitions and operations of the term weakens the internal and external validity of the concept. Because the concept of stress is individualized and ambiguous, the research requires a qualitative approach.

Which four categories relating to stress are identified?

To describe all of the study’s findings, four categories were identified, namely:

  • the experience of stress encompasses how each teen personally experienced stress.
  • the response to stress includes the ways in which the teens responded to and coped with the experience of stress.
  • the stressors include the teens discussion about what situations and environments were stressful for them.
  • the adaptation encompasses specific examples of ways in which teens have overcome or minimized stress.

How do adolescent girls experience stress?

The experience of stress is characterized by three themes:

  • The mind of stress. Four main topics were identified by the girls that related to cognitive and psychological reactions the teens noticed during times of stress. These are having too much to do, not being able to stop thinking, exaggerated response to the stressor, and difficulty concentrating.
  • The feelings of stress. Four main topics were identified by the girls, namely expressions of anger, getting frustrated, sad/depressed, and freaking out. When the girls were asked about the emotional experience of stress, they only described negative emotions, mostly anger, but also anxiety and sadness.
  • The body of stress. The girls discussed how they experienced stress physically and the way in which their bodies responded to stress. Four main topics were identified. These are headaches indicating stress, tension, feeling sick, and being tired.

How do adolescent girls respond to stress?

The girls also talked about how they responded to stressful experiences. Three themes were identified:

  • Calming down/slowing down. Some of the adolescent girls described their efforts to counteract their stress by calming themselves down. They described methods such as eating, exercising and deep breathing.
  • Talking about stress. Most of the adolescent girls used talking to others about stress as a method of coping. They described talking to their parents, peers, and school counselors.
  • Escape. This was the most prominent theme of coping. Some girls “escaped” by taking their mind off of stress, for example by listening to music, reading a book or exercising. A second way of “escaping” consisted of physically shutting others out, for example by running away or hiding from others. The last way of escaping described by the girls was emotionally shutting out others.

What are the stressors causing the adolescent girls’ stress?

The three most discussed stressors were relationships, school, and meeting expectations.

  • With regards to relationships, stressors were stress from family conflicts, high school drama, and stressed about what others think.
  • With regards to school, stressors were homework and grades, and being compared to classmates.
  • Many of the girls described stress related to an expectation either of their own, or their parents, a teacher, or another authoritative figure.

How do adolescent girls adapt to stress?

When the girls were talking about previous stressors, one way they had adapted was that they had grown out of it. They did not always know why a previous stressor was no longer a stressor. They said that the situation had changed, or they themselves had changed. They just felt like they had grown out of it. In addition to descriptions of fitting in and feeling more comfortable, most of the teens gave examples of stressors that simply got better, became easier, or no longer bothered them. Adaptation to stress for most girls was about finding their social network, spontaneous changes that resulted in the stressor no longer being stressful, and feeling more comfortable with a former stressor.

Do adolescent girls lack agency to deal with stress?

Although not many girls said this specifically during their interviews, it was a pervasive theme that seemed to encompass many of the girls’ quotes about their stress. They often made it clear that they were unable to change the stress and they described stress as an external and unavoidable force. They also described their internal physical and emotional reactions to stress as out of their control. The girls did not say that they had learned strategies or techniques that helped them manage stress. Also, when the girls were asked why something was no longer stressful, none of them said it was because they participated in the reduction of the stressfulness or the stressor. This could explain why so many girls choose to escape as a response to stress. Feeling powerless in relation to stress during the adolescent years may contribute to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is seen as a cognitive process to uncontrollable events in which an individual learns to expect outcomes to be uncontrollable.

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