St. Joseph’s Academy welcomed Dr. Lisa Damour, a nationally acclaimed expert in the psychological science behind stress and anxiety responses in high school girls, for three virtual presentations on February 10. Dr. Damour’s message, entitled Managing Stress, Anxiety and Parenting Under COVID-19, was enjoyed by students in a morning gathering via Microsoft Teams. Faculty and staff heard a virtual presentation after school, and parents joined a virtual meeting at 6 p.m. Dr. Damour spoke from her home in Beachwood, Ohio.
Dr. Damour began her talk to the students by expressing sympathy for the havoc the pandemic has brought into their lives. It has been especially tough because of the special events it has eliminated, she said. Each high school year is unique, with a life of its own, and when the traditional activities of a year are lost, they can’t be recaptured. “I’m 50 years old,” she said. “One year looks like the next. What I’m missing this year I can do next year. That’s not true for teenagers.”
Anxiety is a perfectly natural response, not only to the challenges created by the pandemic, but to the everyday pressures of high school, Dr. Damour said. The good news is that psychologists fully understand anxiety. “We know exactly how it operates, how it unfolds and what you can do to get it under control,” she said.
Anxiety is a normal and healthy part of life, Dr. Damour said. “There’s no reason to be anxious about anxiety,” she said, calling it an alarm system designed to alert us when something’s not right. It’s the emotional equivalent of the physical pain response. “It’s unpleasant, but it serves a purpose,” she said. “It causes us to pull our hand away from the hot burner.”
It’s perfectly healthy to be a little anxious about COVID, Dr. Damour said. This anxiousness provides a form of protection, as it motivates us to wear masks, stay socially distant and avoid potentially risky behaviors. Anxiety is considered unhealthy, Dr. Damour explained, when one is anxious without reason or when the anxiety is out of proportion to the problem.
Calling anxiety a systematic function, Dr. Damour said it unfolds in a predictable fashion. The first step is a physical reaction, with an accelerated heartrate, tightening of the throat, queasiness and/or feeling lightheaded. It’s akin to the fight-or-flight response. “The brain sends a lot of heavily oxygenated blood to the large muscle groups to get you ready to run,” she said.
The second step involves the decision to say what we’re feeling physically is anxiety. “But that’s arbitrary,” she said. “We don’t have to put that label on it.”
The third step involves extreme thoughts of negativity and fear that there isn’t a resolution to the problem.
To control anxiety, Dr. Damour said we can disrupt the systemic process at any of the three steps. In the physical phase, she said, the key is as simple as breathing. When we’re anxious, the brain tells the lungs to breathe quickly to prepare us to run from danger. By deliberately slowing and deepening our breathing, we “hack into the system” and send a signal to the brain that we’re safe and to turn off the anxiety alarm.
In the labeling stage, Dr. Damour suggested calling our feelings something other than anxiety. “Tell yourself that you’re excited or that you’re about to ‘crush it,’” she said. “Looking at anxiety as a degree of readiness will help manage the situations coming at you.”
To manage the feeling that “I’ll never be able to overcome this,” Dr. Damour said to ask yourself if you are overestimating the danger or risk and underestimating your ability to handle it. “Challenge yourself,” she said.
Dr. Damour said the most important thing to remember about anxiety is that avoidance makes it worse. Procrastination causes the issue to grow in your mind, become more harrowing and heighten the desire to further avoid what you’re facing. “Try to do a little bit of it, a small bite,” she said. “Work on it for 10 minutes, then take a time out. You’ll discover that it’s not as bad as you thought it was. That will help you feel better.”
Psychology looks at stress in much the same way. Humans feel stress anytime we’re working at the edge of capacity. School is actually designed to be stressful, Dr. Damour said. “It’s a lot like the stress of weightlifting,” she said. “You’re not getting a good workout unless it’s uncomfortable.”
Much like a weightlifter, students should face school by working hard, feeling uncomfortable and getting stronger as they gain capacity. And much like a weightlifter after a tough workout, students must take time off.
Taking a break might include connecting with people. During a pandemic, social media can fill this need. Distractions can help you to redirect your thoughts and provide a time out from worries. Finding a “soft fascination” is another method of taking a break. These activities – such as going for a run or folding laundry – use just a bit of your attention and often enable fresh new ideas to bubble to the surface.
Dr. 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. She writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times, co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast and appears as a regular contributor to CBS News. She is a senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is the executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. Dr. Damour also maintains a private practice and consults and speaks internationally.
Dr. Damour graduated with honors from Yale University and worked for the Yale Child Study Center before earning her doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. She has been a fellow at Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and the University of Michigan’s Power Foundation. She and her husband have two daughters.
Mindy Brodhead Averitt
Photos by Erin Albarado