Dr. Damour redefines stress and anxiety

Dr. Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist, visited Dana Hall from a distance as a keynote speaker for the annual She Sails event to explore the topic of mental health among teenage girls. She emphasized how there are both good and bad types of anxiety and stress, and argued in her presentation that she hopes the pandemic has given people a different perspective on mental health as a whole.  

Dr. Damour is a New York Times bestselling author of two books, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. She graduated with honors from Yale University and worked for the Yale Child Study Center before earning her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan. 

She has a direct connection to Dana Hall, as her great-grandmother attended the school in the class of 1903. She stated, “I was all the more honored to connect with you given the family connection.”

She started her talk by explaining the idea of mental health as a whole and correcting a widespread definition. “Mental health is commonly thought of as the idea that you are only mentally healthy when you feel good, calm, and relaxed,” she stated. However, “this definition exists as a result of the commercialization of wellness.” Dr. Damour wants to recreate the definition of mental health, meaning that you are mentally healthy when you have “the right feelings at the right time.” So, when things are hard you feel stressed, when you lose opportunities you feel sad, and when we are concerned for our safety we feel anxious. Even if the feeling is negative and you feel uncomfortable in a situation, if the emotion is appropriate in its context, then it’s evident that our emotions work as they should. These are what she called “appropriate emotions,” and therefore are a result of good mental health. Spanish teacher Myriam Villalobos, who is also a therapist, expressed, “There’s a business behind mental health, and we need to explore wellbeing as an industry.”

Dr. Damour also explained that you can classify something as good mental health if the person is having appropriate emotions, and knows how to handle them if they are negative. She offered the example of when you are sad, an appropriate emotion would be crying, and then handling these emotions would mean reaching out to someone and talking about your feelings in a way that makes you feel relieved and open to new possibilities. 

She explained that anxiety is a normal feeling that everybody experiences. She expressed that anxiety is “not the bad guy in the eyes of psychology.”  

However, there are two instances where psychologists don’t consider the feelings of anxiety to be healthy. The first one is when you are experiencing anxiety even if nothing is wrong. The other is having anxiety that is out of proportion to what is actually wrong. These occurrences regarding anxiety are not considered to be appropriate emotions, according to Dr. Damour. 

She offered a few techniques on how to deal with anxiety on your own, such as controlled breathing — which she said is hugely effective for relieving anxiety — as well as checking your thoughts and evaluating whether you are “overestimating the risk you are facing and underestimating your ability to manage that risk.” 

However, if the anxiety a person is experiencing beyond their capability to relieve it on their own, graduated exposure, also known as systematic desensitization, is a type of behavior therapy that gradually and slowly exposes the patient to the root of their anxiety until they learn to face the source without fear or negative response. 

The second topic Dr. Damour talked about was the feeling of stress. She expressed that there was a significant advantage she had going into the pandemic as a psychologist, because she was unafraid of stress, something that so many people experienced at the start. 

Psychologists don’t worry about people feeling stress in two instances. The first one is any time you are forced to adapt to a new condition. This could be a good feeling of stress, like having a baby and experiencing the stressors of being a mother, or a bad feeling of stress, like living in a pandemic and becoming accustomed to that idea. The second instance is that psychologists see stress as “fundamentally growth-giving.” Dr. Damour explained that we actually grow in the context of being stressed, and if she had the choice to get rid of this feeling, she wouldn’t. In these two circumstances, psychologists see stress as a healthy emotion. 

However, there are also two instances when they don’t see stress as being particularly healthy. One instance is when someone is facing trauma or any overwhelmingly negative event. The second is the feeling of chronic stress or the constant feeling of discomfort. She revealed that this chronic stress has been a feature of the pandemic. 

Dr. Damour discussed emotional, psychological, and intellectual stress by describing it using a metaphor of weightlifting. Bodybuilders deliberately pick up heavy weights that make them uncomfortable in order to gain strength. Similarly, regarding intellectual emotional stress, it’s only at the uncomfortable edge where the work is very hard that we are in an “uncomfortable range of psychological exertion.”

Dr. Damour advises women not to be afraid of stress unless it’s chronic or traumatic. You should embrace it. When you are working hard on something, you should feel discomfort, like the feeling a bodybuilder gets when they are gaining strength by lifting heavy weights. Their feeling of discomfort is what they came for, so they aren’t worried that something is wrong. But she also advises women to get rest. The downtime we give ourselves is our valuable recovery time out of the gym. 

Ms. Villalobos expressed that she loved the bodybuilder metaphor and that as an educator, she sees that it applies to students in regards to learning as well. “It helped me think about preparing students to grow by teaching them. If they are not comfortable at first, that is okay,” she said.

Image source: CAA Speakers.

Comments are closed.