A Visit With Psychologist and Bestselling Author Dr. Lisa Damour

“I do not want you to be frightened of stress. I do not want you to avoid stress. I want you to run at it — and it will make you stronger.” 

The message, delivered to lower schoolers by psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Lisa Damour, encapsulated the essence of her virtual visit to Agnes Irwin on Wednesday. Throughout the day, Dr. Damour met with each division, faculty and staff members, and held a special evening discussion with parents.

Recognized as a thought leader by the American Psychological Association for her work on stress and anxiety, Dr. Lisa Damour is the author of two New York Times best selling books, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. Dr. Damour also writes the monthly Adolescence column for The New York Times, serves as a regular contributor to CBS News, is a Senior Advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University, and co-hosts the podcast ASK LISA: The Psychology of Parenting.

The common thread of Dr. Damour’s visit centered on redefining our understanding of stress, and adopting a psychological approach to the role of stress and anxiety in our lives. “The general view in psychology is that anxiety is a good thing,” Dr. Damour stated to faculty and staff members. “Anxiety operates, in many ways, as the emotional equivalent of physical pain. ... We feel anxiety when something’s wrong. Just like physical pain, its job is to get our attention and get us to make a change, get us to do something differently so that we are not in danger.”

Such an approach runs counter to the commonly accepted definition — one that characterizes both stress and anxiety as inherently negative concepts. “We experience stress any time we operate at the end of our capacities, any time we are adapting to something really new,” Dr. Damour shared with parents. Stress and some anxiety over tests, deadlines, or even an erratic driver are not unhealthy manifestations; rather, they enact a protective instinct and are highly functional. During her time with faculty and staff members, Dr. Damour expanded on the role of anxiety — particularly in girls. “A degree of anxiety is useful; too much anxiety is not. When anxiety becomes irrational, it always has this definition, which is they have overestimated the danger they are in, [and] they have underestimated their ability to manage what comes at them.”

Addressing Stress and Anxiety With Students

In speaking with students of each division, Dr. Damour shared insights that rang true with each age group. Lower schoolers eagerly welcomed Dr. Damour to their assembly, and began by drawing some parallels between her work as a psychologist and concepts they encountered in the Let’s Care Program with Dr. Lisa Dissinger, Lower School Psychologist. Students learned about what stress is, the difference between it and anxiety, what kinds of “big emotions” arise in stressful situations, how feelings differ from person to person, and strategies for helping themselves and others, such as whole-body breathing, doing yoga, engaging in mindfulness or meditation exercises, allowing others to verbally express their feelings, and more..

In the Middle School, Dr. Damour addressed previously submitted questions and spent some time addressing feelings of low motivation, strategies to categorize work in order to complete it efficiently and effectively, and managing stress and anxiety related to classroom performance. Most importantly, she added, was having a plan for accomplishing the tasks that need to be completed, while also making time to enjoy the work that they love or find fascinating. For those experiencing stress related to perfectionism and mistakes, Dr. Damour emphasized the importance of putting a test, other grades, and answering questions in class in their proper contexts — as measures of knowledge about a specific topic on a given day, not a reflection of a student’s worth as a human being. The aim, she added, is not to make the same mistake twice. “You’re gonna learn by making mistakes. You have to be ok with your mistakes. They're actually there to teach you,” she declared.

With upper schoolers, she also answered student questions on topics including concerns about overthinking, college search and application stress, dealing with separation and fear of missing out, managing family and friend conflicts, and more. She emphasized the importance of grieving the losses associated with COVID, including the unique traditions and extracurricular experiences associated with in-person, pre-COVID Upper School. “You were looking forward to these things. These things had promises for you,” she said. “When we grieve, it does open up some space for what is possible. Grieve to make space: grieve to make emotional space, grieve to make creativity space. It will help you figure out what can happen.”

Confronting Stress and Anxiety in the Time of COVID and Racial Uncertainty

After describing the systematic experiences surrounding anxiety and its role as a physiological preparedness measure, Dr. Damour provided faculty and staff members with a framework for helping struggling students. “One of the things that’s become so prominent in my work with girls in recent years is they call a lot of things anxiety,” she noted. The process of aiding students in reframing the semantics of their feelings and emotions — using more specific, accurate terms such as “apprehensive,” “frightened,” etc. — moves girls into a healthier view of their stress. Avoidance, she added, makes it worse. “When you avoid, the first thing that happens is you feel much better. It’s functionally reinforcing,” Dr. Damour noted. For students who avoid their fears – such as going outside due to fear of contracting COVID — they are unable to determine if they could have handled the situation. “That exposure to reality usually brings the fear down to size,” she added.

Educators, Dr. Damour noted, have a unique position in an industry that does not adapt well to pandemics, while also needing to address students’ mental health. “The goal of the pandemic is not to see how productive we or students can be. The goal is to get to the other side of it psychologically intact,” Dr. Demour stated. For students and families experiencing high levels of stress pre-COVID, the process of adaptation will be more challenging. “If we know that things are stressful when they require adaptation, then the amount of adaptation required determines how stressful something is.” For some, this encompasses crucial social interactions, plenty of physical and emotional room, self-sufficiency, and even access to reliable Internet.

A crucial component of Dr. Damour’s time with both employees and parents addressed racial tensions, both pre-COVID and amidst the pandemic. “From the perspective of psychologists who study the dynamism of stress, the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has gotten so much momentum in the context of COVID is no surprise,” she stated. Combined with stressors of being in society, being non-white in our culture, COVID’s disproportionate effect on communities of color, and the importance of pursuing racial equality, the situation became untenable. The goal, Dr. Damour added, is that when the stress of the pandemic abates, the momentum for equality cannot. She also reflected on the effects of stress and anxiety on girls of color, including revelations from the process of writing her 2019 book, Under Pressure. The final section of the book, titled "Headwinds of Prejudice," occurs in a chapter discussing girls in the context of culture. “What I wrote in that section is that if you are a girl, everything in the book applies to you. If you are a girl of color, there is an entire extra layer of stress and anxiety that attends every aspect of your life — and that is being non-white in this culture,” she remarked. "Where I land in the book is we can’t talk about stress and anxiety in this culture if we’re not going to talk about the fact that one part of the culture is largely responsible for the stress and anxiety experienced by another part. The work here is not for people of color to do; the work falls to white people to do and to own. ... We are headwinds, whether we mean to be or not, and [we have] to be really conscious of that. We have to figure out how not to be headwinds, and then [we need] to figure out what it means to be a tailwind — to try to make things easier, not harder."

Additional Takeaways from Dr. Damour

Here are some additional considerations to help understand, reframe, and manage stress and anxiety.

Students

  • Divide what you need to do into two categories: things you want to do/are excited to do (require effortless attention), and things you have to do (effortful attention).
  • Set a timer for the effortful work, then allow yourself a break or an effortless task.
  • Recognize the difference between comforting behavior and distraction/avoiding what needs to be done.
  • If you’re stuck while working, take a break from the task, and return later.
  • Reward small milestones in your work process, such as a Tik Tok break, chocolate, etc.
  • All people who are managing effectively have tricks and hacks for accomplishing the things they don’t want to do.
  • Remember that your grades, college rejection letters, etc. are not reflections of your worth.
  • If you feel your anxiety is too big about something like COVID, ask yourself: (1) What are the actual risk levels of what I am doing, and (2) What can I do to keep myself safe?
  • It’s okay and good to grieve the loss of experiences and a more “traditional” school experience, traditions, and milestones.
  • If anxiety is too much, the brain tells your lungs to go into overdrive. Combat this by engaging in breathing exercises and mindfulness, which signal to the brain that there is no attack to prepare for.
  • You need to rest and have enough downtime.
  • Engage in positive coping, such as talking with positive influences in your life, watching a TV show that you adore, exercising, eating well, etc.
  • Think of pandemic as a long rainstorm — and your coping is your rain gear.

Faculty/Staff 

  • When confronted with the physiological “fight or flight” mechanism — in yourself or with students — first get the physical reaction under control, reframe the emotion, then combat the anxious thoughts.
  • Encourage girls to be as specific, if possible, when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice and reinforce positive coping mechanisms, including social connections, happy distractions (TV, run in nature, etc), self-care, and caring for others.
  • If you’re confronting a meltdown, engage in some helpful steps:
    • Listen earnestly, without interrupting
    • Offer sincere empathy
    • Validate distress
    • Support positive coping
    • Express non-dismissive confidence
    • Offer to help problem solve
    • Divide the problem into two categories: things that you can change/control, and things that cannot be changed/are beyond your control.
    • Brainstorm solutions to the things that can change.
    • Support acceptance of what cannot be controlled.
  • Help build a tolerance of discomfort in yourself and students.
  • Make a plan to keep yourself healthy, especially regarding sleep and nutrition

Parents

  • Engage in breathing, mindfulness, mediation, and other mechanisms that help calm any anxiety.
  • Calm any physical reaction to stress, then reframe your emotions and combat the anxious thoughts.
  • Address your or your daughter’s fears, if applicable, through graduated, safe exposure.
  • Encourage healthy habits for your family together – and engage in self-care.
  • Determine what work you have, what you’re in the mood to do, and work through a strategy to accomplish it.
  • Practice patience with yourself and others — the pandemic is chronic stress and is tough on everyone.
  • Remember the effect the pandemic is having on children, then acknowledge their experiences before negotiating on socializing.
  • Encourage a healthy view of eating and exercising for you and your family — and watch for signs of negative associations with food or exercise in your daughter.
  • Guard your and your family’s time by establishing your own guidelines regarding screen time.
  • Offer emotional first aid, to yourself and others.
  • Consider that each family has a different “problem pyramid” — or what problems are most important to them – and this is ok! Focus on ways to keep your family safe.
  • Be creative about support strategies as stress rises.

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