Stress & Anxiety

Author: Heather StClair  • 

“Anxiety is your friend.”

When I first heard Dr. Lisa Damour speak this summer in person, I was perplexed. But the reality she unpacked resonates amid a time in history where there is a lot of stress and anxiety.

First, we must acknowledge there is large misconception about those two words: stress and anxiety. Most would connote that they are BAD things. And while too much of anything is unquestionably BAD, the truth about stress and anxiety is they are primitive and evolutionary responses. As she defines them, stress is a human mental or emotional response to demanding circumstances, while anxiety is the alarm system that signals something is in process of changing.

Take weightlifting, for example. It’s hard work. There’s sweat, strain, muscle pulls, increased heart rate… all physical responses to the stress being put on the body. Yet, most people, even if sore, feel better about themselves afterward. The discomfort is part of the process in order to get stronger. So how is building intellectual or socio-emotional muscle different? By definition, wouldn’t it have similarly uncomfortable growth moments and responses?

If these definitions are true, then within a school context, we are in the business of stress. As our children grow and change in many ways each day and each year, it’s fair to say we more than qualify under the descriptions of stress and anxiety. Further, if you agree with that, the other reality is that something is actually kind of wrong if a kid doesn’t come home a little stressed at some level.

A quick anecdote:
Just last week I received an email that was both heart-warming and confirming of what school and the adults in them can help children accomplish. It read:

“I wanted to let you know that Will is going to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from UNC-Chapel Hill in May. I‘ve always been grateful for the advice you gave parents before Will started Middle School. It seemed counterintuitive, but ‘go ahead and allow your child to fail,’ was the best advice we ever got. We backed off and let Will develop his own study and learning habits, and let him know that there were consequences to failure. We never had to hover like helicopters, and he learned how to succeed on his own. Thank you.”

Think about what school is conceptually – it’s a series of meetings all day, some of which they don’t want to go to, yet they do. In fact, it’s the same type of meetings everyday (math, science, English, Spanish, history, etc.). Still, kids persist. But the awesome truth is that we get their best at school – and they’re amazingly great at this process. However, as Damour suggested, they collect emotional trash all day long… and they need a place to dump it. Enter mom, dad, family unit.

Naturally, a parent response is to protect against things that make our children anxious. Well consider this statement: avoidance feeds anxiety. While we might think it’s better to protect our children, we are actually robbing them of the opportunity to manage or see other possibilities, to learn how to deal with stress and/or anxiety. Avoidance, on the other hand, only adds additional layers of them.

Finally, as parents, we tend to see/hear things from our kids in one of two directions: they are either a) things our kids like… or b) things that are in crisis. However, we tend to forget about the millions of things they handle each day. That word (handle) is critically important. In fact, it is so important, Dr. Damour suggests parents and schools celebrate the “handle” as much as possible and the celebration and understanding of it is ultimately what will best prepare our children for the life and world they will inherit after high school.

So while “anxiety is your friend” may make you stressed or anxious, consider changing your perspective and embrace stress. Also remember that you are not alone, and there are great resources out there from people like Dr. Damour to help children reduce stress.

My best,

Matt

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