A better way to think about stress, according to science

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Reminder: the emphasis in reverse corresponds to the desserts. Photo: Tony Tran, Unsplash

Let’s face it: stress is inevitable. Try as we might ignore and avoid it, it always seems to be catching up. “The prices will go up. The politicians are jubilant. You too will grow old. It would then seem like a better idea to learn how to deal with it instead of pretending that we don’t have to.

In a study published by the magazine Nature in July, a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, the University of Rochester, and Google Empathy Lab found a way to do just that. The researchers used a 30-minute online training session to learn participants on a mindset that sees stress as an opportunity to learn and interprets the body’s responses to stress, such as a racing heart, as potentially helpful rather than debilitating. They found that it had powerful effects on mental health and physiological responses to stress after just one session.

The study focused on teenagers in school, but the researchers said the approach could be useful for adults dealing with work or relationship stress.

“We’re trying to change adolescents’ beliefs about stressful situations and their responses to stressful situations,” said study author David Yeager. The Guardian. “We’re trying to get teens to understand that when you’re doing something hard and your body starts to feel stressed, that can be a good thing.”

The researchers called the approach they taught participants a “synergistic mindset,” which combines two other approaches to stress.

The first is the “growth mindset”. The idea is that people can develop the skills and intelligence needed to complete stressful tasks. This mindset sees stressors as controllable because people can learn the skills to overcome them. For example, a quiz can be stressful for students, but they can also study enough to pass.

The second is the “stress-promoting mindset,” which concerns how psychophysiological responses to stress can help optimize performance. This approach sees things like sweaty palms, a racing heart, and feelings of anxiety as potentially helpful if people use them to enhance their activities instead of being distracted by them.

“These two mindsets were not presented as separate ideas, but rather as interwoven and complementary elements of a cohesive whole,” the researchers wrote.

Teaching teens the synergistic mindset meant teaching them to face their stress head-on instead of disengaging from it, as many overwhelmed people would.

Researchers had over 4,000 participants complete a self-administered 30-minute Synergistic Mindset online training module through six double-blind randomized controlled experiments, all of which focused on stressors in educational contexts (such as taking a timed quiz and giving a speech).

In one experiment, 166 college students were given either the training session or a different brain session to act as a placebo, and then were asked to give an impromptu speech about their personal strengths and weaknesses. They gave the speech in front of evaluators who deliberately created an unsupportive environment by doing things like frowning, crossing their arms and sighing. Students who watched the workout showed a lower stress response based on heart rate and other physiological measures.

In another experiment, participants completed surveys to assess their daily stress intensity as well as their self-esteem. For example, participants answered questions such as, “Overall, how do you feel about yourself today?” According to the researchers, negative self-esteem is a precursor to clinical anxiety and depression, as well as a central symptom of clinical depression.

Participants who completed the Synergistic Mindset training showed lower daily negative self-esteem compared to those who did not. Their self-esteem was also less negatively affected by the intensity of their stress, meaning they did not feel worse about themselves when they felt more stressed. Researchers understood this to mean that synergistic mindset training protected participants from the negative effects of stressors on mental health.

Another experiment measured the influence of the training session on academic achievement months after the participants had taken it. The researchers found that students who had taken the training were 14.4% more likely to pass their courses at the end of the school year than those who had not taken the training.

The last experiment assessed anxiety. The researchers had 341 students complete either the synergistic mindset training or an activity to use as a control, and then a survey for generalized anxiety symptoms about three months later.

“Among participants who had negative prior states of mind, those who received the Synergistic Mindsets Intervention (versus control) in January had lower levels of generalized anxiety symptoms in April” , the researchers wrote.

The researchers pointed out that their claims about the benefits of the synergistic mindset training session are limited to how adolescents respond to unavoidable stress in environments such as formal education. The training session was not designed to change the way people deal with negative and uncontrollable stressors like violence or trauma.

But they were also optimistic about how the synergistic mindset might have protective effects on a wide range of normal stressors, including those in the workplace and romantic contexts.

“To work effectively in such contexts, however, the details of intervention content would likely need to be tailored to convey the relevance of synergistic mindsets to the stressors people face in these contexts.”

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