By Allen Wu (V)

Psychologist and two-time New York Times bestselling author Dr. Lisa Damour joined Pingry for this year’s Carver Lecture Series. Her lecture tackled mental health topics like stress, self-care, and coping amidst a slowly recovering pandemic. 

The assembly opened up with a description of the Carver Fund establishment and goals by Dr. Delvin Dinkins and Ms. Anne Delaney. After a quick introduction, Dr. Damour began her presentation with a discussion with how the pandemic has drastically altered students’ lives. According to Dr. Damour, high school is a time for students to become increasingly independent, yet the pandemic has prevented them from doing so. She also talked about the many opportunities, such as plays and sports, that students have missed.

Dr. Damour then transitioned into talking about stress and the many misconceptions that surround it. According to Dr. Damour, psychologists see stress as a natural part of life that people encounter when they have to adapt to new conditions. Per Damour, one of the benefits of stress is that it is essential for growth. To support her argument, she proposed an analogy to a weightlifting program where heavier weights, although harder to lift than light weights, help develop strength. Although stress is conducive to growth, Dr. Damour pointed out that trauma and chronic stress should not be ignored by students. 

Dr. Damour then talked about coping strategies. According to Dr. Damour, negative coping strategies, like substance abuse and avoiding social contact, develop into problems when utilized in the long term. She also talked about positive coping strategies, like self-care and happy distractions (television, video games, books). Dr. Damour also brought attention to a concept she called soft fascination: “Soft fascination activities are basically boring things that we do automatically. All of this open bandwidth allows us to reflect on and resolve things that have been bothering us.” She offered the classic example of people getting sudden inspiration in the shower or on neighborhood walks.

Dr. Damour also talked about social connections and belonging. She says that everyone should have a confidante and feel a sense of belonging. Dr. Damour brought up the idea of a “belong-o-meter” to illustrate how it is important to notice when and where someone has a high sense of belonging or a low sense of belonging. She said to be aware of others’ sense of belonging and to notice how your actions affect them. 

Towards the end of the lecture, Dr. Damour focused on racism and its relation to belonging: “Institutional, systemic, and structural racism are belonging structures. That is not belonging brought to scale.” 

Dr. Damour also spoke about the pandemic and stress. She talked about how stress is based on contextual factors and how the pandemic will redefine what people constitute as a crisis. “When you find yourself in college with a professor that is super annoying, I want you to say to yourself, ‘You know what, if I can do a year plus in a global pandemic, I can do a semester in your class.” Dr. Damour ended her presentation by refuting misconceptions about mental health.

During the Q&A section, Dr. Damour argued that in-person learning is more beneficial to people’s mental well-being because there are so many distractions on the computer and at home. In a question about a lack of motivation during the pandemic, Dr. Damour said that people should use strategies like a reward system as extrinsic motivation.

“I found Dr. Damour to be very warm and personable, not at all detached or miles away—how admirable, considering this lecture was held over Zoom! She captivated my interest throughout. In a time where distance learning, plexiglass barriers, masks, and several feet of separation rule—in the time where we most needed it—it felt like Dr. Damour was really speaking to Pingry,” said Rhea Kapur (VI). “Pingry has worked to keep us safe and bring us back in person in every possible way, shape, and form—and has undeniably done an excellent job there—but the constant threat of our case numbers going up, or the possibility of being contact traced after a single conversation with a friend… it’s stressful. I found comfort in Dr. Damour’s acknowledgement of such effects of the pandemic on our Pingry lives, and her advice on coping with them was sound. Her words truly met the moment.”