Author and psychologist Lisa Damour visited HMS last week to speak on this topic and to provide practical advice for helping children and adolescents (and adults!) handle stress and anxiety. Dr. Damour reminded us all that stress and anxiety are not bad things that we need to avoid at all costs. They are a normal part of life and actually help us survive. Reshaping how we view stress and anxiety is the key to building more resilience in our lives.
For those that could not attend her presentation, I’ve attached a document containing notes from her talk. I would like to take a moment here to provide some highlights, however.
Dr. Damour used weightlifting as a useful analogy for the necessity of stress. When someone wants to get build muscle, they need to lift enough weight that they feel challenged by the lifting...it needs to be uncomfortable, even slightly painful, in order to build that muscle. She likened this to school. School can become stressful when the challenges, both academic and social, become uncomfortable. But that stress and discomfort is what leads to greater ability and knowledge. It can sometimes feel bad, but that doesn’t mean it is bad.
Rest is important, too. Repeated episodes of stress and rest will build resilience--similar to the way our muscles react to workouts. Finding time to do something relaxing, or nothing at all (boredom is a good thing!), is absolutely necessary.
Understanding the mechanics of anxiety can help us handle it when it comes along. When we feel anxiety, it is actually a physical reaction. The amygdala area of the brain releases hormones telling the body to react to something that is not right. Blood rushes to our extremities, heart rate and breathing increase, digestion stops-- these physical reactions helped our prehistoric ancestors to run away from danger faster.
Since anxiety is a physical reaction, doing something physical in response can help reverse it. One simple technique Dr. Damour uses and teaches is “square breathing.” It goes like this:
- Inhale for 3 seconds
- Hold breath for 3 seconds
- Exhale for 3 seconds
- Hold breath for 3 seconds
It’s that simple! Breathing like this might not change the fact that your mind is telling you that you should be preparing for tomorrow’s important meeting instead of binge-watching your new favorite show, but it will help to calm your body’s reaction so you can make more reasoned decisions and identify what is causing the anxiety in the first place.
Practical Tips for Parents of Teens
The brain remodels itself during adolescence from back to front, meaning it begins in the area that controls emotions and works its way toward logic. This is what causes the emotional intensity and inconsistency in young adolescents. Meanwhile, teens often spend their days at school being their best selves. They sit quietly, they do the work they are asked to do, they listen to lessons, they read, write, and collaborate. They hold many of their changing and intense new emotions inside. Dr. Damour explained it as putting “emotional trash” in their pockets all day. Sometimes, when they come home from school, they need to empty their pockets of that “emotional trash.” Often, they simply need to be heard as they vent. Be available to listen, and model how to handle anxiety and stress. Show them that stress can be managed and that a crisis is actually very rare.
Help them get sleep. A lot of it. Sleep is non-negotiable. The #1 culprit in causing teens to lose sleep? Technology. Sleep occurs better in a room with no phones, tablets, TVs, or computers. As capable and responsible as they are in so many ways, they are rarely capable of saying “no” to the pressure of social media. We have to do it for them.
We can also dispell the myth that more friends results in more happiness. Dr. Damour noted that the opposite is actually true. Her observations and actual studies show that people with fewer friends have deeper relationships and less social stress in their lives.
Through a better understanding of the nature of stress and anxiety, and an awareness of the developmental causes of these experiences, adults can be better equipped to guide our children and teens as they develop that ever-important quality of resilience.
“Dr. Montessori often repeated: ‘When confronted by situations which concern the child and seem difficult to solve, do not seek outside remedies, but concentrate upon the nature of the child and the essential needs of his development.” --Mario Montessori (Dr. Montessori’s son), The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education