On Thursday, September 17, the Winsor Parents’ Association welcomed best-selling author, advisor, columnist and podcast co-host Dr. Lisa Damour to speak with the community. Renowned for her expertise and explanation of the psychological science key to understanding how stress and anxiety operate, both under everyday conditions and at times of heightened concern and disruption, Dr. Damour spoke with families about parenting during these turbulent times.
In her introduction, Dr. Mary Beth Gordon P‘23, ‘26, a member of the PA leadership team and co-liaison for parent programming, noted, “Unfortunately, managing our worries, and managing our kids’ worries, is part of the pandemic experience. So, for this reason, we are particularly thrilled to host Dr. Damour to share her expertise.”
Dr. Damour began by underscoring that there are circumstances that evoke anxiety as a normal and appropriate response, and the COVID-19 pandemic is decidedly one of them. “Anxiety is the emotional equivalent of the physical pain response,” and as such, “anxiety is a given and a good. It is there to keep us safe.” When is there cause for concern? When it occurs in the absence of anything being wrong (which does not apply during these turbulent times), or when it heightens to a level that is grossly out of proportion with the circumstances. “When anxiety becomes irrational, the definition is very simple: we are overestimating the danger, and underestimating our ability to manage it. That is what an irrational fear always looks like.”
To help parents manage the heightened anxiety associated with the pandemic, Dr. Damour outlines a clear, systematic approach that includes: understanding the logic behind our natural, neurological response to uncomfortable situations and the resulting physical symptoms; deep breathing (literally); and reframing. “Take the time to figure out what’s going on,” she says. “We help the feeling come down to size when we get it right.” Her approach is distilled for easy, frequent reference in the one-sheet How to Manage Anxiety Under COVID-19.
Like anxiety, stress is also a normal response when faced with something challenging, and Dr. Damour emphasizes the importance of sharing that with our children. “Say to them, ‘yes, you’re supposed to be anxious when something’s not right, and you’re supposed to be stressed when you are doing something hard and new.” As with all learning, “you’re getting nothing out of it if it’s easy.” However, stress become unhealthy when it is chronic, or when it is the direct result of a trauma.
When it comes to chronic stress, the threshold differs for each individual, and research indicates that two significant contributing factors include how much adaptation is required, and “the cascade of daily hassles that arrive” as a result of a particular circumstance or event. Data shows that “stress levels are highly correlated to tiny, daily hassles,” and that the cumulative effect is surprisingly significant. So facing the prospect of a prolonged pandemic and the continued daily disruptions, it is essential for parents to emphasize and enable self-care for their children, beginning with the basics. “We all need 3 things: someone to tell your worries to, someone to tell your secrets to, and a place where you can go that you feel connected and accepted.” And we need to adopt positive coping strategies, and avoid negative coping habits that only provide short-term relief. Dr. Damour’s strategies are outlined for easy reference in the one-sheet How to Manage Stress Under COVID-19, and her parent-praised bookmark How to Manage a Meltdown.
In closing, Dr. Damour reminded parents that now more than ever, kids need us to really listen to them, to acknowledge how hard things are, and to reassure them that they are OK and that their fears and feelings are normal. And they need to us to express our confidence in them, their ability to cope, and the job they are doing dealing with such difficult circumstances. “We can’t do enough of that right now.”
For more of Dr. Damour’s research, and access to additional resources including her one-sheets, monthly columns, weekly podcasts, news coverage, and upcoming events, go to www.drlisadamour.com.