Updated: Jul 9
Anna was heading into her last week before she took the ACT, and all signs were good. She had scored nearly perfectly on three practice tests in a row, and she had no weaknesses that the test could find. Still, she was feeling anxious, and told me that she wanted to take one more full test “to boost her confidence.” I told her that taking another test was a good idea just to keep in practice, but I also said that the results shouldn’t affect her confidence at all. She had already proven that she had what it takes when it comes to this test, and so I told her that nothing that happens on the next practice test should affect her confidence.
Nobody gets three 99th percentile scores in a row by accident. Anna agreed with this line of argument, but I could tell that she wasn’t 100% convinced. Despite her amazing track record, one bad score might have been all it took for her to doubt herself.
As it happens, Anna’s story ended well. She rocked the practice test, crushed the real thing, and got into Yale. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. Another student, Sara, was so stressed out by tests that every question was a triggering event causing her to question her worth as a human being. In the end, she was fine, and scored close to where she should have, but the whole process took an emotional toll on her. Denise, Samantha, and Maya were so afraid of making a mistake that they checked and double-checked themselves to the point where they couldn’t get to enough questions to get a decent score. On the real thing, they all had perfectionist meltdowns, spending too much time on just a few questions and then crashed and burned on the rest. Then, once they had one bad section, they couldn’t let it go, and wrecked the other sections as well.
The Downside of Anxiety
All of them recovered and did better on their next test, but that was with expert help from an expensive private tutor (me) and, in Denise’s case, extra time granted as an accommodation for her excess anxiety. Most people don’t have the resources to get expert one-on-one help or the awareness that getting more time because of excess anxiety is a thing. For some, though, anxiety is a problem they can’t overcome, even with my help and extra time on test day. I had a student who was so ashamed of every mistake she made that she broke down emotionally and stopped preparing altogether. Anxiety levels that high make it hard to do well on tests, and they also make it hard to function at all. I know this kind of anxiety was a real problem for my students, so I can imagine that it must be an even bigger problem for people who don’t get expert advice, and that’s the vast majority of us. That’s an issue worth addressing, because the physical experience of anxiety is unpleasant, to say the least, and also because it has other related potential conditions/consequences, such as:
Perfectionism: holding yourself to absurd standards, blaming yourself and feeling worthless when you fail to meet those standards, and sabotaging perfectly-acceptable outcomes in the vain hope of obtaining unrealistic ones.
Unwarranted self-criticism: focusing on your weaknesses and mistakes, ignoring your positive accomplishments and strengths, overemphasizing the relevance, credibility, and importance of any negative feedback; judging yourself by the worst thing you’ve ever done.
Fragility: being vulnerable to catastrophe at any moment; allowing relatively small negative events to snowball into life-altering disasters; perceiving the last negative thing that happened to be more important than all the positive things in your track record.
Excessive risk avoidance: always choosing the “safer” path, even when the odds are in your favor; underestimating or ignoring the potential benefits of a course of action when it has risks; evaluating alternatives by considering only the Worse Possible Scenario.
As bad as the above conditions are, there are some extreme expressions of anxiety that can be even worse. Here are two:
People who are beset by anxiety can be susceptible to manipulation by human predators who are skilled at identifying and exploiting this condition. We’ve all seen cases in which some amazing person is dependent on the approval and “support” of a partner whose sole skill in life seems to be the ability to convince the amazing person that she can’t live without him.
Some people who experience extreme distress whenever they realize that made a mistake or recognize one of their weaknesses develop a maladaptive coping mechanism that shelters them from either event. Instead of learning how to deal with imperfection and error, they find ways to convince themselves that they are never wrong and have no weaknesses. Their outward behavior can be difficult to distinguish from that of a narcissist, who also cannot admit error, but the root cause is different. The narcissist truly believes that he or she is always right, but those with hyperanxiety sometimes just can’t face the consequences of being wrong.
Girls and Overstress
For these reasons and others, it’s clear that anxiety is an important issue. After a while, though, I noticed that it was an issue that didn’t seem to be evenly distributed in the population. Not every girl is an anxiety bomb, and not every anxiety bomb is a girl, but anxiety isn’t divided 50/50 between boys and girls. Not even close. Normally, I’m pretty resistant to drawing gender-based generalizations, but after a while, the trends become unmistakable. Among my students, the average anxiety levels are higher among the girls, and the ones who suffer from anxiety the most are almost always girls.
What I’ve seen is pretty consistent with what others have found, both anecdotally and through more rigorous analysis. We’re pretty sure that this is real, and so focus naturally goes to identifying causes and paths to improvement. The debate over causes sometimes ventures into the nature/nurture debate, but not for long. It’s certainly possible that genes play some role here, as girls are more socially aware than boys are. But even a casual examination of the way society treats girls provides a bumper crop of explanations of why girls are so stressed out. I’m not going to try to provide an exhaustive list of those explanations, but here are some leading reasons why society is churning out stressed-out girls:
Actual danger: not every worry is irrational. One reason girls believe that terrible things can happen to them is the fact that terrible things really can happen to them. So one step towards relieving anxiety is to make the world a less dangerous place. But that won’t be enough, because of things like:
Clickbait fear mongering: our media masters aren’t really interested in telling us the truth. What they really want is our attention: page views, video plays, and followers. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to get someone’s attention is to scare them to death, and so our media diet is full of terrible news of dire threats, and we respond. We created the system to serve us, but now we serve the system.
Idealized visions of success, beauty, and happiness as seen in mass and social media: Examining the mass media products aimed at girls reveals a vision of life that is simply unattainable even among the people that those products purport to represent: most people don’t look like models, and they certainly don’t look like airbrushed models. And social media is no better: the images are almost as realistic, but the people involved are people you know. Either way, spending time examining the sanitized and processed “perfection” of others breeds dissatisfaction and insecurity.
These are all factors, but they can’t be the entire explanation for the anxiety gender gap, because all of these things affect boys as well. There’s got to be something different about the way we’re raising girls that is making them even more stressed out. Maybe we tend to teach girls to follow rules and encourage boys to break them. Perhaps our expectations make a difference. Maybe we overprotect girls and underestimate their resilience. Maybe girls feel that they’ll never be good enough because that’s what they’re being told, and maybe they feel that they can never make a mistake because they see females being hypercriticized all the time. Maybe they see women being judged harshly for behavior that gets forgiven when a man does it, and they get the message. Maybe it’s a lot of these things combined with others, and even if you raise your girls differently, you’re swimming upstream because your daughters are influenced more by their friends and the larger culture than by your home life.
These are daunting tasks, but there have to be things we can do about this issue. Proposing society-wide reforms might be a little ambitious for this essay, but I can think of some things in the education world, which I know relatively well, that might help reduce the stress level of not only girls but boys as well. How about this:
Less emphasis on simply avoiding mistakes: Part of the reason that “standards” are so high and tolerance for mistakes is so low is that the work itself in high school is so formulaic that you can’t set yourself apart by doing especially good work. So everyone gets judged based on the number of mistakes they make. You know what the difference between an 80th percentile SAT score in math and a 90th percentile score? Usually, it’s minus signs, mixing up x and y, and similar stuff. Of course, attention to detail is important, but should admission to prestigious colleges depend more on following instructions to the letter than on critical thinking and creative work? It shouldn’t, and when it does, it makes education a stress generator instead of what it should be.
More learning through failure with low-stakes consequences: Maybe school would be less terrifying if we reduced the consequences of the occasional failure and encouraged people to try out new things that might not work out. In high school, millions of people take homework-laden AP classes they hate because “colleges like them.” They would be better off exploring a subject just for fun, but they won’t do take those classes if doing so will hurt their applications. We can fix this problem by changing the incentives. Imagine what might be different if students were required to take one course per year on a pass/fail basis. They might take courses that actually teach them something new and interesting instead of courses that merely reinforce pre-existing tendencies.
Get kids of their comfort zone and do things that you’re not good at (yet). Sports can be useful in this regard. While I wouldn’t endorse every aspect of US sports culture, in sports you learn through failure and have fun doing it, and in general I’ve found that my students who are also athletes tend to have healthier relationships to success and failure. They’re used to be coached, they take accountability, and they understand that making mistakes is part of being human. Sports can be great at teaching these lessons, but there are other options, too, including martial arts, dance, visual arts, learning a musical instrument, becoming functional in a foreign language, public speaking, teaching, building things, learning how to fix things, and more. Almost any activity can serve this purpose if you engage with it in a productive way.
Less homework! Somewhere, we learned that successful people put in lots of work, and we learned exactly the wrong lesson. Instead of finding ways to get people to want to do the work required to be successful, we dumped tons of pointless busywork on everyone under the false impression that this would lead to success. While some practice is essential, we’ve clearly gone overboard. Reducing the workload would reduce stress levels and yield additional benefits.
Break the monopoly of elite colleges: Competition is global now, and there’s no going back. We have more and more qualified people trying to get into schools with a fixed number of openings. Grade inflation and the dumbing down of standardized tests mean that lots of lots of people have stellar credentials. If nothing changes, this will only get worse. But we can change it. If we break the virtual monopoly that elite colleges have then we can solve a few problems at once. For example, microcredentials (short programs focused on a small and specific set of skills) can yield educational results that are open to everyone, cheaper, and better evidence of actual skill.
Even these things together will not solve all of the anxiety problems that girls face. Still, it’s not clear that the excess anxiety facing girls is a worse problem than the reflection of this problem that we see in boys. While girls as a group are too stressed out, the boys as a group are not stressed out enough.
Boys and Understress
I once taught a brother and sister combo who were applying to colleges in the same year but weren’t twins. Their first scores were above average, but well below where they should be, for very different reasons. Rachel got all the easy questions right and all the hard questions wrong. She didn’t make sloppy mistakes, but there were things she didn’t know how to do. When I showed her the questions she missed and explained what to do in response, Rachel took on the challenge eagerly. “Give me another one” she’d say, and she asked for material to study. She went on to ace the exam, and I have few fears for her future.
Rachel’s brother, Daniel, had every skill he needed except focus. He missed the same number that Rachel did, but most of them were sloppy mistakes, and he was just as likely to miss the easy ones as the hard ones. In theory, you’d think he’d have an easier time improving, but that’s not how it played out. When I showed him the kinds of questions he was missing and how easily he could have gotten them correct, he leaned back, smiled, and said “Yeah, that’s just me.” Later, he bugged out of preparing, bombed the test, and permanently increased his mother’s pulse rate by 15 beats per minute.
These two cases do not, by themselves, prove much of anything, but they illustrate something I’ve seen over and over again. It has nothing to do with their relative raw abilities. (The apparent difference between these siblings is beside the point.) Instead, the real point of the comparison is to illustrate differences between what, in general, boys and girls do when they notice that they have an academic weakness. While girls are more likely to obsess over making mistakes that any normal person would make, boys can look in the face of imminent disaster with a shrug. To some extent, that’s an advantage for boys, since the consequences of excessive stress are serious, but boys take it too far. Stress is a response to a real problem, and ignoring real problems leads to bad consequences. I don’t want boys to be as stressed as girls are, but a little more stress might be useful when the facts in front of them would seem to demand a response.
Of course, I could be dead wrong about boys being understressed. I can’t know for sure exactly how much stress they feel or how it feels to be them. Still, it’s not just me who thinks there’s an issue here. I’m very consistently hearing the same thing from parents and teachers. Everyone is reaching the same conclusion: on average, facts that tend to motivate girls are much less effective in motivating boys, and the collective lack of urgency among boys is palpable. We know from the studies cited above that boys are less prone to anxiety than girls are, and I’m just taking it a step further in arguing that while society overall might be excessively stressed, boys as a group would do better if they felt a little more anxiety in the face of clear evidence of imminent and serious consequences.
Identifying the causes of this anxiety shortage starts with two major candidates: nature and nurture. As a guy myself, I can say that there could well be something in our genetic programming that predisposes us to taking risks, irrational confidence, and downplaying likely consequences. That being said, there are plenty of environmental candidate explanations, too, such as:
The nature of today’s schools: When I see the endless marches of repetition and compliance required of students today, even in the so-called “good schools,” I completely sympathize with students who look at this offer and opt out. Maybe boys find school unmotivating because it’s entirely reasonable to find drudgery unmotivating. And maybe they’re less interested in college in part because the prospect of continuing that experience for four more years, at great cost, doesn’t sound so appealing. Of course, girls have to live with this system as well, but they seem to fare better in it. Uninspired repetition is bad for them, too, but maybe not as bad as it is for boys.
Attitudes towards compliance: In popular culture and elsewhere, we celebrate males who break all the rules and succeed anyway, sometimes by dumb luck. Our heroes are athletes, artists who don’t care what you think, and movie characters who “play by their own rules.” Even our politics have shifted such that anyone who works within the system is rightly suspected of losing touch with regular people. Well, that’s how we treat rulebreaking males, anyway. Rulebreaking females are ruthlessly dissected, their unforgivable flaws dwelled upon forever. Maybe boys are picking up on what gets celebrated and not caring so much about doing what they’re told.
Underprotectiveness: While we teach our girls (somewhat accurately, unfortunately) that danger lies around every corner, we’re much less protective of our boys. Girls are warned of events that can scar them for life, but boys are expected to “walk it off.” Maybe boys are getting that message and taking it too far.
There are quite a few things we can do to make things better, but one prerequisite is to take the plight of boys seriously. I’m not convinced that we do. Right now the percentage of female college students is closing in on 60%,and we’re looking at imbalances in high school graduation rates, degrees conferred, and more. If the situation were reversed, we might view it as a serious problem, and we did when rampant sexism of a kind that would be totally unacceptable today was keeping women from opportunities that they deserved. And of course, the progress we’ve made towards giving females better opportunities is a treasured accomplishment. We’re not going to make society better by making it harder for females to succeed. I’m just suggesting that the plight of males counts as well, and that maybe we don’t take it as seriously as we should.
The low priority that boys’ struggles seem to have could be influenced by the fact that basically no one is intentionally slanting the playing fields against boys, as they used to against girls. It’s not like the colleges are setting a ceiling on the percentage of males they admit. Intentional discrimination tends to provoke a stronger response. Rather, the gap in seriousness, like the gap in performance, is the consequence of other, subtle, societal factors. Ask yourself, when you see an appeal for charitable giving, are you are likely to see a suffering boy as you are to see a suffering girl? When the media mobilizes awareness about a missing person, isn’t that person almost always a girl? Don’t we expect boys not to complain about their problems? For these reasons and others, it’s really not clear that we take boys’ suffering as seriously.
Now, just to be 100% clear, I’m not arguing for less compassion for girls. Let’s just not neglect boys. Extending concern is part of our moral duty, and that’s not enough, doing so also makes sense for societal stability. Look at the track record when a country has a large number of unemployed young men. Bad things happen. If we’re looking towards a future in which millions of young men are going to have a harder time finding a keeping a job in the modern economy, then we’re playing with fire, and all of this is before driverless cars become dominant and throw millions of men out of work. We need to get ahead of this trend and build an educational system in which everyone can thrive.
What should we change? Quite a bit, I’d think, but if we’re sticking to the field of education, I’d argue that many of the same changes that would help girls would help boys as well For example:
More creativity, less drudgery: Again, we’ve learned the wrong lesson from the fact that successful people tend to work hard. We’ve demanded that everyone work harder, but not because the practice really helps them to build their skills or prepare for a better future. We’re just filling time and punishing people who fail to do what they’re told. If we want people to work harder, we should inspire them and ask them to do meaningful things instead of imposing unreasonable demands and punishing them when they fail to comply. And it’s not just the quantity of work we expect that’s the issue; it’s also the type of work we expect, and the latter factor may be more important. Boys, like other humans, will occasionally respond to incentives, and when the reward for doing repetitive work is still more repetitive work, rational people will opt out.
Alternative paths: By now it’s clear that the “college for everyone” strategy has some very serious unintended consequences. A job market that favors employers is forcing employees into an arms race of college and graduate degrees for jobs that should not require a degree at all, and everyone is stuck. Employees get degrees they don’t want because not having those degrees is worse, and employers keep favoring people with degrees because they can. If nothing else, people with degrees have a track record of following through, but that’s not a reason to drag millions of people each year through irrelevant courses that they hate. There’s got to be a better way, and we need to find one before driverless cars create an underclass of unemployable young men. We need to find alternatives to the traditional college experience that give employers the confidence to hire and give students the skills that they actually need.
A Modest Interim Proposal
While we’re waiting for these things to happen, I have one other proposal to address the anxiety gender gap. As you’ll see, I haven’t exactly thought it through, but in discussions with parents of both boys and girls I’ve concluded that it has some potential to help out both the girls who are too stressed out to function and the boys who could (and this is so far only a hypothetical) walk blindfolded through a minefield and not break a sweat. I call it the Stress Exchange Program®. Here’s how it works: We take the excess stress generated by the girls of society and transfer it to the boys who could use a little more, thus making both sides happier.
Admission to the program will be based on the recommendations of parents and guardians, as we obviously can’t trust the teenagers to make this decision by themselves: The overstressed may be reluctant to give up their stress, and the understressed don’t think that they have a problem at all, basically because they never think that anything is a serious problem. Stress donors would not have to be girls, and stress recipients would not have to be boys, but that would be the most likely transaction. Like other systems, the Stress Exchange Program® would need to be monitored for abuse. For example, it would be necessary to guard against tiger moms who might seek to increase the stress levels of their already-overstressed children in the hopes of obtaining some elusive competitive advantage. Similar measures would be needed to prevent the understressed from donating their nonexistent stress and creating a stress negation paradox in which the understressed child would cease to exist at all. You can’t be too careful when designing these things.
Initially, the program will be administered in person, though in time certain verified users will be able to exchange stress through laptops, tablets, and other mobile devices. Fees would be nonexistent, because adding financial stress would be counterproductive for half the customer base, and the other half s needs every incentive to participate, even in programs that are essential to their well being. Granted, there are some technical hurdles here, like the fact that there’s no way to actually do this, but I still hope that this very idea of a Stress Exchange Program® will help build awareness of a serious problem that affects all our children, and maybe ourselves as well.
Note: Names have been changed to not cause further stress, especially for the people who are already stressed out. Though perhaps those who could use a bit more stress in their lives would have been better off if I had published their full names and mailing addresses. No, wait, that would be wrong.
 The pronoun choice here was intentional.  Technically, stress and anxiety are different things. Basically, stress is the body’s response to a short-term experience, and anxiety is excess worry. For the purpose of this essay I’m treating them as essentially interchangeable. If you worry too much, you’re stressed out. For a more technical description, see https://www.psycom.net/stress-vs-anxiety-difference and https://www.verywellmind.com/dsm-5-criteria-for-generalized-anxiety-disorder-1393147.  https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/09/puberty-girls-confidence/563804/ https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/why-do-girls-have-more-anxiety-than-boys/ https://childmind.org/article/mood-disorders-and-teenage-girls/ https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/adolescent-girls-and-anxiety https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900028259/youll-never-be-good-enough-how-anxiety-lies-to-our-girls-and-what-you-can-do-about-it.html  This gets complicated when it comes to measuring the actual danger facing and girls, because in general boys pose a greater physical threat to girls than the other way around. Sex-selective abortion is much more likely when the developing fetus is female. Then again, boys get killed at higher rates than girls do, though then again, a lot of that is self-inflicted to some extent. Let’s just say there is a lot of danger for everyone. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-a-pregnant-womans-chan/ https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-03.pdf  This was my first hint that something odd was going on.  That last bit was just a guess.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2012/02/16/the-male-female-ratio-in-college/#4374fc73fa52 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/03/06/womens-college-enrollment-gains-leave-men-behind/  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-ostapchuk/breakdown-of-us-high-scho_b_9265724.html  https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72  https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/11/gender-education-gap/546677/  And often, they don’t even get out! Too many students are stuck in remedial classes that they can’t pass and would give them no academic credit even if they did. https://hechingerreport.org/college-students-increasingly-caught-in-remedial-education-trap/