I had the opportunity last week to hear a number of international speakers at the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia annual online conference. Dr Lisa Damour delivered a keynote address on how stress and anxiety is normal and why it’s important to make these emotions your friends. This was a particularly relevant topic as our Year 11 and 12 students commenced examinations this week.
Dr Amour is an American psychologist and author of the 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 a monthly New York Times column and co-hosts the podcast ‘Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting’. Dr Damour provided great insight into how girls can take stress and anxiety and turn these emotions into “fuel” — helping them to make sense of these emotions and learning how to use them in a positive way.
We know as adults that the emotions of being calm, happy and relaxed all the time is simply not possible and is certainly not sustainable. In fact, research suggests that convincing ourselves that this is achievable is quite detrimental to our mental health and can have the adverse effect. We are designed to express a wide range of emotions, both positive and negative. Dr Damour believes that good mental health is “when you have the right feeling at the right time and you are able to manage it effectively.”
Anxiety and stress are normal and healthy emotions. Psychologists sometimes refer to anxiety as one of our protective emotions. Anxiety is one of our body’s mechanisms to tell us that something is not quite right. Anxiety is normal if something gives you a fright or upsets you. It’s a feeling or reaction that sends you a message that something is not quite right. For example, if a student has an examination looming and a parent enquires as to whether they have studied for the examination and their response is ‘no’ then they are experiencing anxiety for the reason of being unprepared. It’s the right feeling at the right time. Once they start studying, they slowly start to feel better, and their anxiety level diminishes.
We need to be concerned about anxiety when a student is experiencing anxiety and there is nothing wrong (or a reason can’t be identified) and when the anxiety experienced is out of proportion to the situation. For example, a low level of anxiety is normal as you commence examinations, but if this escalates to a panic attack then there is need for concern and additional support.
There are techniques that we can encourage with our girls that they can use to help them deal and recover from anxiety. These techniques include relaxation and distraction. Relaxation will be something different for each girl. It might be watching TV, going for a run or reading a book. Distraction might include engaging in an activity that they are fully immersed in and requires a lot of focus, for example playing a musical instrument.
I urge our community to check in on family and friends this weekend to see how they are travelling. The pace of life is busy; however, it only takes a few minutes to ask, listen and encourage action and support if needed. It all starts with a conversation and genuine care.