Dr. Damour spoke separately to four groups at Greenwood: staff, Grade 7-8 students, Grade 9-12 students, and parents and guardians. In each presentation, she started with an important message: mental health does not mean being calm and relaxed all the time.
According to Dr. Damour, mental health has two parts.
Experiencing the right feeling at the right time. “If you have been anxious or despairing at times during the pandemic, those feelings make sense!” she says.
Having the ability to manage feelings effectively. This management has to work well both for the individual and for those around them.
We don’t want to prevent feelings like anxiety and sadness - they are sometimes the right feeling. What we want, says Dr. Damour, is to regulate them using one of two methods: expression and containment.
There are a few steps we go through before we even begin expressing a feeling.
Naming the “weather system”. (Are we angry? Anxious? Sad?)
Finding a compassionate listener.
Telling that listener how we are feeling.
A lot is working well by the time kids get to the last stage, Dr. Damour says. Our first instinct may be to try and make the problem go away, but “we need to celebrate the fact that they have expressed their feelings to us.”
There are also other ways to express feelings besides words. Some of these are productive (e.g. arts, athletics) and some are not so productive (e.g. violence). It’s important to look for these signs of non-verbal expression in children before we assume that they are not expressing at all.
Some kids, however, have difficulties expressing their feelings, or they feel shut down. Dr. Damour shared some strategies to encouraging expression, including:
Going for a walk or drive together. Sometimes, not looking directly your child while you’re talking can encourage them to express themselves.
Asking in displacement. For example, asking “How are your friends feeling about school right now?”
Sending them a text message. (“You seemed a little bit down when you left this morning - I just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.)
The last option is especially important for kids who are not as strong in verbalizing emotion and processing speed. “A text gives students who are slower processors a chance to process and find the words they need,” Dr. Damour says.
Kids are good at containment, and they do it all the time. Distraction is the form most children turn to first. “A kid who gets home and feels overwhelmed might hop on TikTok for 15 minutes, and that helps them contain and reset,” Dr. Damour says.
When it is time to contain? When emotions are spilling everywhere with no benefit. (Dr. Damour provides 9 steps to managing a meltdown here.
) That’s when it’s time to set it to the side and go do something else. “Something that feels like the worst thing ever when leaving school doesn’t feel so bad after practice,” she says.
One of the most prominent emotions many of us are feeling these days is anxiety - and it often has negative connotations, even if it shouldn’t. “Anxiety in and of itself is not pathological - it is often the right feeling at the right time,” Dr. Damour says.
What we don’t want is for our “anxiety alarm” to go off when nothing is wrong. It should also be well calibrated in terms of how “loud” it is; a panic attack is an anxiety alarm that is too loud. Dr. Damour suggests the following containment strategies when anxiety gets out of control.
Breathing: Anxiety, and the resulting “fight or flight” response, are very primitive. Breathing deeply (e.g. using square breathing) “hacks'' this process, as your body equates breathing deeply and slowly with safety.
Helping kids assess risk: We generally overestimate risk and underestimate our power to manage that risk. Talking your child through the risk involved in a situation can be very helpful. For example, if your child is worried about an upcoming test, you can ask them guiding questions to remind them of their preparedness. (“Have you been to class? How much have you studied?”)
Soft fascination: Unlike “hard fascination”, which is anything completely absorbing, “soft fascination” involves doing things that only use a slice of our mental power (like washing dishes or walking the dog). “If you don’t fill all of your bandwidth, something amazing happens,” Dr. Damour says. “Your brain starts solving problems that weren’t front and centre.”
One of Dr. Damour’s most important messages is that feeling stress is normal when adapting to new conditions. “Stress happens when you are growing or pushing the edge of your capacity,” Dr. Damour says. “The work of school is a lot like weightlifting. If you only lift light weights, it might be more fun, but you’re not getting stronger. You need to lift weights that feel heavy and probably a little unpleasant to grow.”
She also encouraged students to make their recovery from stress a priority. Things like playing sports after school, watching a show, wrestling with the dog or listening to music can all be forms of recovery. “Know your way and really lean into it,” Dr. Damour says. “Treat it as a ‘restoration interval’. Don’t feel guilty for resting.”
In closing, Dr. Damour reminded our community that there are lots of staff members at the school ready to help when students feel anxious, and that we should all do our best not to cast a negative light on the positive things in our lives.
“The presence of the negative doesn’t mean the absence of the positive,” Dr. Damour says. “It’s important that we let nice things be nice. This fills us up and helps us to bear with the negative when it comes.”