Research Press Release

Public health: Tackling adolescent stress


July 7, 2022

Stress-related thoughts and physiological responses in adolescents can be reduced using a single 30-minute online training session, reports a Nature paper. The findings suggest a short, low-cost treatment for adolescent stress that could be scaled nationally.

Young people today suffer record levels of stress-related anxiety and depressive symptoms that pose a major threat to their mental health. Finding ways to help young people embrace and overcome stressors — such as demanding coursework, social isolation during pandemic lockdowns and future uncertainty — are crucial to help them to prepare for adulthood. One suggested method is the stress optimization approach, which is designed to teach young people to engage positively with social and academic stressors, rather than trying to minimize or avoid them, to improve their stress coping skills. The stress-can-be-enhancing mindset centres on the belief that physiological stress responses — such as a racing heart, deeper breathing and feeling anxious — can fuel optimum performance. Another mindset is the growth mindset, the idea that intelligence can be developed with effort, strategies and support from others.

David Yeager, Christopher Bryan and colleagues created an intervention that synergistically merged ideas from the growth and stress-can-be-enhancing mindsets, and tested it with six groups of students (4,291 in total) ranging from secondary school age to undergraduate level. The intervention involved a self-administered 30-minute online training module based on this synergistic approach that targeted both growth and stress-can-be-enhancing mindsets. The authors then measured the students’ stress levels, including psychological wellbeing, anxiety symptoms, academic success and stress-related cognitions, hormones and cardiovascular reactivity. They found that, by addressing both mindsets together, a single session of the intervention could protect vulnerable adolescents against unhealthy responses to normal stress and the associated negative mental health outcomes. One study took place during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, suggesting that the reduction in stress can generalize to diverse sets of stressors and situations.

The authors suggest that this scalable intervention may provide young people with the resources and guidance they need to unleash their skills and creativity, which are critical for addressing humanity’s future challenges.


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