Stress in teenagers can be reduced by a single 30-minute online training session aimed at encouraging a growth mindset and seeing the body’s reaction to stress as a positive, according to scientists.
A study involving more than 4,000 secondary school pupils and university undergraduates suggests the intervention could be a low-cost, effective treatment for adolescent stress.
The approach focuses on seeing stress as an opportunity for growth and interpreting physiological responses such as a racing heart as potentially performance-enhancing.
“We’re trying to change teenagers’ beliefs about stressful situations and their responses to stressful situations,” said Dr David Yeager, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and first author of the study. “We’re trying to get teenagers to realise that when you’re doing something hard and your body starts to feel stressed, that could be a good thing.”
Mental health problems are on the rise in UK teenagers, with rates of probable mental health disorders among six- to 16-year-olds increasing from one in nine (12%) in 2017 to one in six (17%) in 2021, and there are long waits for access to services in some regions.
The “growth mindset” concept has been widely popularised in sports and education psychology. The latest approach adds in a new element, in which people are encouraged to reinterpret the physical signs of stress as beneficial – for instance, a pounding heart can help mobilise energy and boost oxygen flow to the brain.
Over a series of six randomised controlled trials, Yeager and colleagues showed that the 30-minute intervention appeared to have powerful and lasting effects on physiological responses to stress, academic performance and mental health.
In one trial, 166 students were given 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 in front of peer evaluators who had been trained to create an unsupportive atmosphere by sighing and frowning. Those who had been given the intervention had lower stress responses, based on heart rate and other physiological measures.
In another experiment, the intervention was shown to influence academic achievement nine months later, with students 14% more likely to pass classes at the end of the academic year. In a final trial, teenagers who had done 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 appears to view stress as uniquely negative and suggests people “go do yoga or have a camomile tea”. “That’s a way to distract yourself but it doesn’t help you deal with the underlying cause of stress,” he said.
The findings are published in the journal Nature.