On Wednesday, Oct 6, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Damour gave two separate virtual talks to Upper School students and parents of all divisions on the development, health, and wellness of young women. She was the first speaker in the 2021-2022 Sacred Heart Speaker Series, hosted in conjunction between the Leadership and Wellness sub-committee of the Board of Trustees and the Parents’ Association.
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 also writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times, is a cohost on the podcast “Ask Lisa,” and is a regular contributor for CBS News.
Dr. Damour began the discussion with the Upper School students by commenting on the flawed assumptions surrounding mental health, especially the idea that being mentally healthy means one is calm and relaxed at all times. Instead, Dr. Damour proposed another definition of strong mental health that focused on having the right feeling at the right time and being able to handle those feelings effectively.
“Our feelings should reflect our circumstances,” Dr. Damour said. “Psychologists don’t mind negative feelings, and we don’t want to get rid of them; we see them as part of being human.”
Dr. Damour proceeded to discuss stress and anxiety and how both play out in the lives of teenage girls. She noted how stress is natural; any sort of change in environment or routine leads to stress, and stress can even help one grow. However, Dr. Damour also emphasized the importance of coupling high stress periods with restorative intervals.
“Restorative intervals are when you step away from the stressful thing and start to consolidate the growth you have gained,” she explained. These restorative intervals look different and last different amounts of time for everyone. They can include watching an episode of your favorite TV show; going to sports practice; reading a book; or allowing yourself to take some quiet and contemplative time.
Dr. Damour then turned her focus to anxiety, and differentiating between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Healthy anxiety, as she defined it, is when the body is telling us to be alert and watch out for something. Unhealthy anxiety, on the other hand, is when one feels anxiety but nothing is wrong and/or the anxiety one feels is too big a reaction to the situation at hand.
Dr. Damour noted that a good way for managing anxiety is deep breathing. She touched upon how this can sometimes be seen as a cop-out answer, but provided a scientific explanation for why breathing really does calm the body down. Anxiety adrenaline is sent through both the brain and lungs, which is why when one is anxious, one may find oneself breathing harder or having a hard time breathing at all. When the brain controls the lungs in this instance, the reverse can also be true: taking deep breaths and bringing more oxygen into the lungs can alert the brain that the threat is “gone,” thus reducing one’s feeling of anxiety.
Dr. Damour then began answering questions from students. A few of these questions centered around social media and both its benefits and drawbacks.
“Using social media as a way to take a break can be a gamble,” Dr. Damour said, “you may feel better, you may feel worse. If you really need to take a break, can you find something more guaranteed that will give you that boost?”
She went on to talk about how social media apps, especially photo-centric ones such as Instagram, are designed to depict, showcase, and compare “containers,” or the outer, surface-level aspect of a person. This can be especially damaging for young women, as society has problematically given extreme importance to female appearance.
“Your container is the part of you that’s least out of your control,” Dr. Damour advised, “while your contents are entirely in your power.”
Director of Athletics, Leadership and Wellness Liz Dennison played an instrumental role in bringing Dr. Damour virtually to campus.
“We were impressed by her ability to break down and explain the challenges that our students and families face with respect to stress, anxiety and overall wellbeing, and then provide meaningful support and practical strategies that everyone can use,” Ms. Dennison said. “I am confident our community came away with ideas on how to manage their own and their families' wellness.”
Dr. Damour’s virtual visit ties in with the Living Our Mission’s Leadership and Wellness committee, which seeks out innovative and effective ways to nurture our community both in body and mind. Listen to Dr. Damour’s conversation with parents by clicking the Wellness Resources button in the Parent Portal. Learn more about Wellness and Leadership at Sacred Heart Greenwich here.