Stress in teens can be reduced by a single 30-minute online training session that aims to encourage a growth mindset and view the body’s response to stress as positive, scientists say.
A study of more than 4,000 high school and college students suggests the intervention could be an inexpensive, effective treatment for adolescent stress.
The approach focuses on seeing stress as an opportunity for growth and interpreting physiological responses, such as palpitations, as potentially enhancing performance.
“We’re trying to change teens’ beliefs about stressful situations and their responses to stressful situations,” said Dr. David Yeager, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study. “We’re trying to make teens realize that when you’re doing something hard and your body starts to get stressed, that can be a good thing.”
Mental health problems are on the rise among teenagers in the UK, with the rate of probable mental health disorders among six to 16 year olds rising from one in nine (12%) in 2017 to one in six (17%) in 2021, and there are long waiting times to access services in some regions.
The concept of the “growth mindset” has become widely popular in sports and educational psychology. The latest approach adds a new element, encouraging people to reinterpret the physical signs of stress as beneficial — a pounding heart, for example, can help mobilize energy and boost oxygenation to the brain.
In a series of six randomized controlled trials, Yeager and colleagues showed that the 30-minute intervention appeared to have potent and lasting effects on physiological responses to stress, academic performance and mental health.
In one trial, 166 students received either the intervention or a placebo session in which they learned about the brain. They were then surprised with a request to give an impromptu speech about their personal strengths and weaknesses to reviewers trained to create an unsupportive atmosphere by sighing and frowning. Those who received the intervention had lower stress responses, based on heart rate and other physiological measures.
In another experiment, the intervention was found to affect school performance nine months later, with students being 14% more likely to graduate by the end of the academic year. In a final trial, teens who had completed the training reported lower levels of general anxiety several months later.
Yeager said the approach went against the “pervasive ethic of self-care” that often seems to view stress as a uniquely negative and suggests that people “go for yoga or drink chamomile tea.” “That’s one way to distract yourself, but it doesn’t help you address the underlying cause of stress,” he said.
The findings are published in the journal Nature.