30-min module turns teen stress into a positive force

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Psychologists have developed a tool to help teens turn everyday stressors that could lead to anxiety and depression into a positive force.

“Adolescents today are more stressed than ever, exhibiting record levels of stress-related internalizing symptoms, such as anxiety and depression,” says Jeremy Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

There are solid reasons for teens to worry. A global pandemic. War in Europe. Mass shootings, economic insecurity, and staggering college costs in the United States.

And then there are the ordinary, day-to-day stresses that teens have faced for generations, such as how they’re perceived by their peers, coaches, teachers, and potential romantic partners, and increasingly, how they’re faring in a competitive and demanding academic landscape.

Jamieson, who heads up the university’s Social Stress Lab, specializes in the study of these ordinary stressors, which he says have grown substantially with greater academic pressures, and even more so, with the rise of social media.

“For adolescents, social hierarchy, social comparisons, and peer evaluations have always been important, but now it’s there all the time,” he says. “People are receiving a daily stream of likes, dislikes, and comments via social media, which makes for a constant state of social evaluation. It’s one of the most damaging things we’ve seen for adolescents.”

While there are good reasons to limit one’s use of social media, peer evaluation is a fact of life, as are challenges in school and at work. And they all can bring on stress.

Conventional thinking often equates stress with something “bad,” but as Jamieson says, “stress is a normal and even defining feature of adolescence” that allows teens to acquire a wide variety of complicated social and intellectual skills as they transition to adulthood and eventually join the labor market.

“For those of us who study stress processes and psychophysiology, stress is just any demand for change—it’s neither good nor bad,” he adds.

Yet, how we respond to stressful situations can lead us either to depression, or toward resilience.

30-minute module

That basic concept—that how we respond to stress can weigh us down or help lift us up—informs a training module developed and tested successfully by Jamieson and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, and the Google Empathy Lab. (The researchers caution that the tool is not suitable for those whose stressors are the result of trauma or abuse.)

As the researchers explain in the journal Nature, the 30-minute online training module teaches teenagers to channel their stress responses away from something “bad” that needs to be feared and tamped down toward recognizing those responses—sweaty palms, a racing heart, for example—as a positive driving force.

The intervention works by helping teens develop what the researchers call two “synergistic mindsets.”

One, a growth mindset, is the idea that one’s intelligence can be developed in response to a challenge. It’s “basically the belief that intellectual ability is not fixed but can be developed with effort, effective strategies, and support from others,” Jamieson says. “It’s the idea that if I push myself, I can grow, I can learn, I can improve, and I can push through difficulties.”

The other is what the researchers call a stress-can-be-enhancing mindset. It’s the idea that one’s stress responses not only are not harmful, but can also actually fuel a person’s performance in challenging situations. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, and deeper breathing, for example, are physiological changes that “mobilize energy and deliver oxygenated blood to the brain and tissues,” Jamieson says.

The module presents these two mindsets as part of a single process. The growth mindset trains teens to embrace rather than avoid the difficulties of a situation, while the stress-can-be-enhancing mindset encourages them to lean into their physiological stress responses and use them to meet the challenge head on.

The researchers show over the course of six double-blind, randomized experiments, conducted in both laboratory and field settings with a total of 4,291 young people (students in grades 8–12 and college undergraduates), that the intervention improves the participants’ stress-linked health outcomes, such as biological responses, psychological well-being, anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as academic performance.

Says Jamieson, “These combined messages got the teenagers in our studies to view stressors as things that could be overcome, rather than as something overwhelming and outside their control.”

Key findings, next steps

The data showed that the synergistic mindsets intervention resulted in:

  • Improved physiological responses to stress, including increased delivery of oxygenated blood to the brain and body, and a faster return to the body’s homeostasis after a challenging event
  • Improved psychological well-being (people felt liked, powerful, satisfied, good about themselves, had higher self-esteem, and didn’t feel rejected, insecure, or disconnected)
  • Reduced negative self-regard, an internalizing symptom that can lead to depression
  • Lower cortisol levels, a hormonal indicator of threat-type stress responses
  • Higher academic achievement (measured in pass rates for core classes)
  • Lower anxiety symptoms

“Now that we know that it works, we’re working on scaling it up,” Jamieson says. “We know that the biggest changes occur in those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, experience more day-to-day stressors, and are lower-achieving, academically.” The next step would be large-scale trials.

‘Stress can be useful.’

Most of us know that the stress we feel is an evolutionary adaptation. But we tell ourselves that a trigonometry test does not pose the same threat as a hungry lion headed in our direction. So, the message is that the stress is irrational, and we should somehow get rid of it.

But that’s the wrong message, says Jamieson.

At a basic level, the module is about “teaching people about how stress can be useful. That’s a really big, novel idea for a lot of people. Stress is typically not seen as something that is beneficial and adaptive, it’s seen as something that’s damaging. We’re really trying to work against that misconception.”

Instead the teens in the experiments who used the module learned a bit about how the brain works, and that when you learn, you actually change the physiological structure of your brain through engaging with difficult challenges.

“The harder you work, the better you become at different tasks,” says Jamieson, including meeting a host of life’s challenges with resilience.

Support for the research came from the National Science Foundation, the Google Empathy Lab, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Source: University of Rochester