Dr. Heather Davis (she/her/hers) conducts research to address questions regarding the risk for and consequences of disordered eating and related psychopathology. In particular, Dr. Davis is interested in the experience of shame in the context of eating disorders, and the potential for shame to serve as a transdiagnostic mechanism underlying comorbidity between eating disorders and comorbid problems, such as alcohol use, depression, anxiety, and self-harm. She uses multiple methods to test questions related to this aim, including laboratory, longitudinal, and ecological momentary assessment designs. Dr. Davis also focuses on the study of groups at high risk for disordered eating, but underrepresented in the eating disorders research literature. She is currently conducting research investigating shame and disordered eating among individuals experiencing food insecurity. Dr. Daviss research has been funded by the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) in the National Institutes of Health, the Lipman Foundation, and the Philanthropic Educational Organization.
In what ways can students show support of peers who are struggling with mental health issues?
Students can show peers support by doing the following:
LISTEN when your peers are upset. Validate their concerns! This might mean saying "Wow, that sounds really tough." You might feel tempted to offer problem solving solutions - this can be OK, but if you are getting the vibe that your friend does not want solutions, sometimes it is okay to just validate that they are having a hard time. Always refer your peer to professional care (like a counselor, therapist, or the university health center) if you are worried about their safety.
What is the most important tip you have for students to maintain good mental health through their education?
Students can maintain good mental health throughout their education by maintaining a healthy work and life balance. This can feel difficult at times - and certainly work-life balance is an ebb and flow because sometimes we just have to work more than other times! - but it is very important to practice. We are humans and not robots - we are not meant to work all the time. I recommend that students maintain their social relationships with family, peers, and mentors, and also their hobbies. School can feel so overwhelming and it is easy to get caught up in the numerous things you have to do and abandon things you used to enjoy (like sports, art, or reading for leisure). I recommend that students build at least 30-60 minutes a day into fostering their hobbies and interests outside of school.
What are some physical and nutritional habits that students should adopt to maintain good mental health?
Students should know that eating regularly (3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day) is best for maintaining their mental health. When we skip meals or go too long between eating episodes, our blood sugar drops and our mood suffers as a result. Additionally, eating a balanced diet that consists of both very nutritious foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fats, protein) as well as some fun foods (birthday cake, ice cream, cookies), is important for mental health. When we restrict things from our diet that we enjoy, the human brain ends up wanting those things more! So it is best to maintain a balance.
Students should additionally adopt consistent exercise habits doing something they enjoy (e.g. sports, walking, yoga) rather than something that they feel pressured to do (e.g., running marathons). Physical activity is excellent for clearing the mind, and helps to regulate our bodily systems which can contribute to better mental health.
Final, SLEEP is so important! Students should strive to sleep 7-9 hours per day, and nap on days they are not able to get a good night's sleep. Studies show that those who nap are more productive and have better mental health than those who do not nap! A huge share of mental health problems are due to sleep disturbances so it is important your body get rest daily.
Finally, I recommend that if students are struggling to get or keep themselves on track with healthy behaviors and their mental health, they seek professional support in the form of a therapist or counselor. There is no shame in taking care of your mental health like you would your physical health!
How can students healthily work through moments of heightened academic or personal stress?
There are several options for students who are looking to increase their healthy coping skills.
First, in moments of extreme stress (heart-racing, feeling overwhelmed and/or highly emotional), I suggest three super-fast skills that can help calm one down quickly so they can pursue the below tips more readily. These skills come from Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The first is related to changing your temperature: splash cold water on your face or dunk your face into very cold water for about 10 seconds (or however long you can tolerate). This activates the "dive reflex" and brings your heart rate down very quickly so that you then may feel a bit more in control of your emotions. The second is intense exercise - this one helps release built up emotions like anger or frustration, and you don't need to do it for long. Even 15 minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, and running in place can be a nice "re-set" in highly emotional times. The third tip is paced breathing - this one includes breathing in and out slower than you normally would. I recommend starting with breathing in for 3 seconds and breathing out for 3 seconds, and building up to about 8 seconds each. This action communicates to your body that you are safe and not in danger.
Second, I recommend that students reach out to their social network (e.g., family, peers, mentors, teachers) to seek support during difficult times. It is important to let your support system know that you need them, so that they can be there for you.
Third, I recommend creating a "coping toolbox." This is a collection of skills ("tools") students can use to cope with difficult feelings or work through challenges. The toolbox should be created by the student so that the skills are personally relevant to them. When first creating the toolbox - which can include physical items in a backpack/literal box, or electronic items on your phone to be easily access wherever you are - I recommend choosing objects that correspond to the five senses. For example, for sight, I recommend having 2-3 pictures of people, pets, or memories that make the student happy. For sound, you might have a playlist or list of your favorite upbeat songs. For taste, you might have some candies or even a written out recipe (cooking and baking tap into multiple senses at once and thus are excellent for coping). The student may also include things like fidget toys, games to play on their phone, and/or sentimental things like notes from loved ones. The box should be in a place that students can see it at all times so it is accessible when needed. To avoid using coping to procrastinate, I recommend setting a timer on one's phone for a limited but healthy amount of time (e.g., 30 minutes).