Dr. Hayley Watson Discusses Stress and Mental Health

This past Monday, February 22, the Lawrenceville Key Club hosted a talk with clinical psychologist Dr. Hayley Watson as part of Mental Health Awareness Month.

This past Monday, February 22, the Lawrenceville Key Club hosted a talk with clinical psychologist Dr. Hayley Watson as part of Mental Health Awareness Month. Watson spoke about her own childhood trauma and introduced a set of skills that students can use to help themselves stay calm during stressful times.

She opened by discussing the effects of stress on the brain, noting how once one is placed under stress, he or she loses contact with his or her prefrontal cortex and thus can no longer think and react rationally. “We have a lot of thoughts and emotions that get flooded into our brain from earlier experiences that then dictate how we act,” Watson said.

She continued to provide examples of this phenomenon in her own life, focusing on how childhood experiences often shaped reactions from her brain. When Watson was young, her house was bombed multiple times, and because of this, whenever she experiences any sudden fear, her mind automatically tells her that she is unsafe. She explained how “stories like these” are based on past experience and are given to us by our minds when we find ourselves in challenging situations, and, as a result, it becomes even more challenging to get through them.

Watson then introduced the first skill, asking attendees to find what “triggers” elicit these reactions in their own lives. “When we do this, we actually bring the front part of our mind back and are able to see the bigger picture,” she said.

Next, she then presented the second skill, which is to understand what stories your mind tells you as a result. “When we’re stressed, our mind thinks that these stories are facts,” Watson said, but in reality, “our thoughts are just ideas floating past that come and go.” With that realization, Watson explained how this recognition technique can help get someone out of a panicked state and make rational decisions that will fix their situation.

However according to Watson, when in the panicked state, people tend to, instead, try and escape those feelings and end up falling into bad habits. Watson presented some examples in her own life—most notably, drinking and binging Netflix, so that she could disassociate herself from the condition she was in. She also mentioned how people often try to make themselves perfect, only to become very hard on themselves when they fail to do so.

Watson then presented a video of other teenagers sharing their own experiences getting through their struggles in hopes of helping attendees to see these ideas in action with their peers. Next, she asked attendees to look at the patterns that they fall into while trying to avoid their feelings; however, she noted that it is “a normal thing to do while in a stressed-out state” and that “we shouldn’t shame ourselves for this…It’s not necessarily bad or wrong.”

Watson introduced a really important skill: how to deal with feelings of stress without entering a hopeless state. “Usually, we just want to get it away, but if we can learn to notice it in our bodies and be okay with it, our whole system calms down. Doing so helps us better deal with our emotions and make more rational decisions,” she said.

Attendees then performed an exercise: they were asked to imagine a situation in which they were particularly stressed or frustrated. Then, they had to forget the “story” being told and had to focus exclusively on the feeling in their body, especially where it was the most intense, in order to use their brain in an intentional way.

“As you’re feeling this sensation in your body, I want to see if you can give this sensation a color. Imagine how big it is. Imagine the shape. Imagine the texture. Really see if you can describe and picture these feelings to yourself,” she explained.

Finally, Watson described how it is possible to use these different techniques to soothe your body during stressful times. “When we are initially stressed, our mind wants us to go away from the feelings and leave the situation, but what we should do is to teach our brain that these stress responses are not going to kill us or put us into danger,” she said.

Reflecting on attending the event, Alistair Lam ’23 said, “It really helped introduce to me a new way of thinking about stress. Facing our feelings is pretty hard to do, but Dr. Watson offered some really good tips on how to get started with that. I feel like at Lawrenceville, we are always onto so many things that we sometimes sacrifice the time to pause and think through things, and I really appreciated her sharing how to do that.”

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