In Conversation About Teen Mental Health, Emotional Healing, and Resilience

In Conversation About Teen Mental Health, Emotional Healing, and Resilience

Dale Larson, PhD, speaks with Digging Deep founder, Sheri Sobrato, about emotional well-being and resilience.

COVID-19 has amplified many of the divides and challenges we face as individuals and as a society, including the crisis in teen mental health. Here, adapted from our recent webinar, brain tumor survivor and Digging Deep Project founder, Sheri Sobrato Brisson, sits down with Dale Larson, PhD, professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University, to discuss the importance of emotional healing and what we can do as parents, teachers, and professionals working with young people to guide emotional well-being and resilience.  

sheri sobrato
Digging Deep Project founder, Sheri Sobrato Brisson

Sheri: It’s not easy being a teenager or young adult today. The stressors of the world are mounting, COVID-19 being one example, but even before that, there were school shootings, teen suicide, and the intense pressure our young people are experiencing. You combine all these stressors with the fact that many major psychological diagnoses begin in teen and young adult years, it’s no surprise we’re in a mental health crisis. It’s no wonder the American Psychological Association found in their survey that nearly 75% of teens said they could have used more emotional support during the past year.  What I would love to talk with you about today, Dale, is how we can empower young people not just to survive their teenage years, but to actually to thrive. When you were my professor at Santa Clara, I remember learning from you about emotional healing and I’m hoping you could start by telling us what emotional healing is, and a bit about the process to get there.

Larson: I think, and all our research and clinical work shows, that emotions are at the core of psychological healing and transformation. And yet we tend to not think about emotions as a resource. We tend to think of emotions as something we have to manage – we have to control our emotions. But these emotions are real and what we have to do is develop a more positive relationship with emotions – as parents, professionals and as teens. You know, emotions are there to guide us not only when dealing with experiences like grief and loss, where I think they have incredible adaptive value, but in everyday situations as well. We have a saying in therapy: “Name it to tame it, feel it to heal it.” The basic idea is to go beyond the feeling of global distress to get down to a deeper understanding of what an emotion is telling us. In psychological research we call this emotional differentiation. Every emotion has a need associated with it and every need has an action. For example, if you feel lonely you may need to reach out, to make a connection. Our emotions guide us to positive action—that is how they are a resource.  Dick Lazarus, the renowned stress researcher and professor of mine at U.C. Berkeley, said our emotions have the wisdom of the ages, and I could not agree more.

Sheri: And can you talk about what happens when we suppress these emotions…

Larson: One focus of my research has been self-concealment and how the suppression of emotional expression blocks access to this healing. This gets back to your work, Sheri, with Digging Deep and Shadow’s Edge. The studies on expressive writing, journaling that is, are amazing – you write for 15 minutes over four days and you see improved immunological functioning; you see improved schoolwork; you see less absenteeism at work with adults. It’s really quite remarkable – just expressing these things makes a big difference. It’s finding a way to learn from emotions instead of trying to suppress them. Suppression does not work. Suppression just creates what we call an ironic rebound – it just keeps coming up and coming up, and we keep pushing it down. We have to open up to our feelings and then learn from them, as they contain wisdom. They are our ally, our resource.

Sheri: The next thing I’d like to talk about is resilience. I’m curious: Is resilience something we’re born with or is it something we can develop over time?

Dale Larson, PhD
Dale Larson, PhD

Larson: Resilience is not understood very well. One thing we do know is that resilience is an outcome, not a fixed personality trait you either have or don’t have. We know someone is resilient if they’ve successfully managed psychologically challenging life situations. Very often, these life situations can themselves be an agent for resilience. What’s really exciting is that we now know there are a number of things that can enhance our resilience. It’s been illustrated in various ways, for example, that social support is a tremendous resilience-enhancer. Communication with supportive others enhances resilience. Some people have solid sources of social support, are able to avail themselves of that support, and this strengthens their resilience. Psychologists work on promoting these resilience-enhancing factors, rather than defining whether or not a young person is naturally resilient.

Sheri: I’d actually like to go into a bit more detail about one of the factors you mentioned: social support. I’m wondering if you could say something about social support and the community we build around us and how this support affects our ability to heal emotionally?

Larson: You know, after more than 100 years of psychological research and clinical practice, it turns out that social support is one of the best predictors of almost every positive outcome we can measure, whether psychological or physical well-being, mortality, and quality of life in general. And of course, counseling is just a refined kind of social support. Yes, there’s a lot more to it, but counseling is at its core an instance of social support. And we have learned from extensive study of psychotherapy and counseling that it’s the relationship that heals; it’s not the specific technique that we use. We’ve evolved as humans to develop, maintain and restore our emotional well-being through our connection with others. We all have that need to reach out when distressed. When we have something that’s distressing, we have that urge to share it with another human being, but unfortunately, there can be things that can get in the way. For example, when we have an experience we see as shameful, or experiences that we feel will lead others to be judgmental of us, we tend not to disclose and not to reach out. And then that leads to more problems because we can get caught up in our own thoughts. Shame is the glue that keeps things hidden. However, once we get a distressing thought or feeling outside ourselves—by sharing it with a trusted confidant or expressing it in the ways Shadow’s Edge makes possible – we can look at it with perspective and learn from it rather than simply reacting with more distressing thoughts or feelings. While it’s still in that echo chamber, we are not really able to process it very well because you imagine that you alone have this issue – what we call the  fallacy of uniqueness. We can then avoid our experience by ruminating, worrying, or suppressing rather than actually experiencing our experience, and this blocks emotional healing. When we can instead contact these experiences and see what needs and actions they are pointing us toward, we are tapping into what Carl Rogers termed the organismic valuing process, an internal guide that supports overcoming adversity and promotes self-actualization.

Sheri: One very important thing you said that really resonates with me is to have this community around us. It has to do with that self-expressive side, because if we don’t put ourselves out there, how on earth are people going to know how to relate to us? I remember that was the most important thing I learned when I was going through my own personal process after having had a brain tumor. I was so frustrated that nobody seemed to “get” what was going on for me. When a support group leader asked me the simple question, “Well, have you told anybody how you feel?” and I’m like, “Uh no,” to which the facilitator wisely said, “No wonder they don’t know how to support you!” We have to overcome that reluctance to share, and once we do, good things start to happen. We get empathy. We get support. We access connection. One of the things I’ve realized through the Digging Deep Project is that young people and people in general don’t self-express — they don’t put themselves out there in a way that people can see their true self and begin to bring in real connection.

Larson: Your personal journey, I think, gave you deep empathy for the suffering of the children and youth you are helping, and also gave you confidence in the healing power of empathetic and caring connections. We never want these difficult life experiences to happen, but when they do, and when support is there, they can lead to tremendous personal growth and an inspired life. Thanks for sharing your journey and for all that you do to help others find resilience and growth on theirs.

This article was adapted from the Digging Deep Project webinar “Demystifying Adolescent Mental Health.” For additional voices and insights on teen mental health, please find the full webinar HERE and also above.