Today’s teens are more stressed than ever before, and they show record levels of stress-related mental health problems. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why teens can be anxious. global pandemic. war in Europe. Mass shootings, economic insecurity, and staggering college costs in the United States.
Add to that the harmful effects of 24/7 exposure to social media. Adolescents’ psychological well-being is influenced, much more than other age groups, by the way they perceive and judge their social environment – peers, teachers, parents, and coaches.
“We receive endless likes, dislikes, and comments across social media, which leads to a steady state of social evaluation,” says Jeremy Jamison, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “This is probably one of the most damaging things we’ve seen for teens.”
The mental health crisis among adolescents has prompted the urgent pursuit of preventive interventions. Jamison, who heads the Social Stress Lab in Rochester, and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, and the Google Empathy Lab think they have one.
As the team explains in a recent study in the journal temper naturethe 30-minute online module teaches teens to direct their stress responses away from something negative that needs to be feared and to deal with those responses—as a positive driving force—sweaty paws, and a racing heart, for example.
The intervention works by helping teens develop what researchers call “synergistic mindsets.”
The first is growth mindset The idea that people’s intelligence can be developed in response to challenges, helping teens deal with difficult stressors. “It is basically the belief that intellectual ability is not fixed but can be developed with effort, effective strategies, and support from others,” Jamison says. “It’s the idea that if I push myself, I can grow, I can learn, I can improve, and I can get through difficulties.”
The second is Stress can boost mental health The idea that people’s stress responses are not harmful but can instead fuel a person’s performance by helping them persevere and face difficult challenges. Sweaty paws, a fast heartbeat, and deep breathing, for example, are physiological changes that “mobilize energy and deliver oxygenated blood to the brain and tissues,” Jamison says.
How does the Synergistic Mindset Intervention work?
Over the course of six randomized, double-blind trials, conducted in both laboratory and field settings with a total of 4,291 young adults (grades 8-12 and undergraduate students), the researchers demonstrated that their intervention improved participants’ stress-related health outcomes, such as their biological responses, and well-being. psychological, and anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 lockdown, as well as their academic performance.
One experiment was conducted in a strict, urban charter public high school where 95 percent of the students are black, African American, or Hispanic/Latino, and nearly all students (99 percent) come from low-income families. The researchers chose this group because students who face a combination of socioeconomic disadvantages and high academic standards are likely to experience chronic daily stress, which has the potential to elicit negative stress responses.
The team noted impressive results in the most demanding STEM courses where the intervention resulted in a 63 percent success rate among students in the synergistic mindsets intervention group, compared to just 47 percent success rate for students in the control group.
Here’s some of what researchers taught teens during the intervention
- High school is a time when experiences of difficulty, struggle, and frustration provide opportunities for personal growth.
- The stress your body feels when you experience these experiences prepares you to learn from the challenges.
- People who understand that the brain changes with learning and that the body’s stress response facilitates learning are better prepared to meet the demands of high school.
- When you deal with difficult challenges more often, things that were difficult start to feel easier. When you feel that something is really difficult, your brain learns how to respond more effectively.
The data showed that synergistic mindsets intervene
- Improving physiological responses to stress, including increasing the delivery of oxygenated blood to the brain and body, and causing a faster return to body balance after a challenging event
- Improved psychological state (people felt loved, strong, satisfied, good about themselves, had higher self-esteem, and did not feel rejected, insecure, or separated)
- Low negative self-esteem, an internalized symptom that can lead to depression
- Increasing academic achievement (measured by pass rates for core semesters)
- Decreased symptoms of anxiety
“Because mental interventions like the ones we tested can be cost-effectively delivered in national or regional expansion studies, our research links insights about regulating people’s impact with the discovery of actionable intervention methods that may be able to create real and lasting change for a wide range of people. people,” says study co-author David Yeager, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who is an expert in adolescent development and well-being.
The team notes that their intervention applies to growth-promoting stressors, such as formal education, the acquisition of new skills, or social assessment contexts. However, they cautioned that this type of approach would not be appropriate for addressing trauma, abuse, or structural inequality.