Science update: Online tool helps protect teens from stress, suggests NIH-funded study | NICHD

A 30-minute, self-directed online learning module can protect teens from unhealthy reactions to stress and related mental health consequences, suggests research funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. The researchers designed the training module, known as the “synergistic attitudes intervention,” to enable adolescents to harness both stressful events and stress responses to support their goals.

The work that appears in Nature, was led by David S. Yeager, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin. Funding was provided by the NIH Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Science Foundation, Google Empathy Lab, and Jacobs Foundation.

Background

Today’s teenagers are experiencing record high levels of stress-related anxiety and feelings of sadness or depression. Conventional guidelines for avoiding stressful situations can be counterproductive because they lead many teenagers to forego potentially beneficial stressors, such as demanding academic courses. In addition, the social isolation and uncertainty about the future caused by the COVID-19 pandemic created unavoidable stress.

To address the need for tools to help adolescents engage positively with stressors, researchers designed the Synergistic Attitudes Intervention to simultaneously target two sets of attitudes or beliefs: a growth mindset and a stressor-can-do mindset. raise A growth mindset focuses on the belief that intellectual, athletic, and other abilities can be developed with effort and support from others, inspiring adolescents to think of difficult challenges as opportunities for self-improvement. Thinking that stress can be heightened encourages adolescents to view physiological stress responses such as sweaty palms, a racing heart, and deeper breathing as beneficial because they mobilize energy and deliver oxygenated blood to the brain and tissues.

Results

Researchers conducted six related studies to evaluate the effects of a synergistic attitudes intervention on stress experienced by high school and college students. Individual studies ranged in size from 118 to 2,717 participants. All are focused on educational stressors, such as taking a timed test, giving a speech in front of classmates, or maintaining academic work during school closures related to COVID-19.

Following the synergistic attitudes intervention, study participants reported less negative views of stressful academic events and their responses to these stressors. The intervention also improved cardiovascular responses to a stress test and reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. Additionally, findings suggest that the intervention improved participants’ psychological well-being and academic success and reduced anxiety during the 2020 COVID-19 university closures.

Analyzes show that the combination of the two mindsets is more powerful than either of the component mindsets alone. Overall, intervention effects were greatest for participants who had negative attitudes prior to completing the online module. However, some benefits — including lowering cortisol levels and improving academic performance — were evident regardless of the participants’ previous attitudes.

Meaning

“Our research suggests that we may not be teaching adolescents that they are too fragile to overcome difficult struggles, but that we could instead provide them with the resources and guidance they need to unleash their coping skills and creativity with big problems”, the authors conclude. They note that the synergistic attitudes intervention could in principle be scaled up nationally at low cost to help reduce adolescent stress.

next steps

The researchers note that the effects of the synergistic attitudes intervention need to be more fully evaluated in large-scale studies in different populations and contexts. Such studies can inform decisions about how best to scale up and implement the intervention.

References

Yeager DS et al. Synergistic Mindset Intervention Protects Adolescents from Stress . Nature DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04907-7 (2022)

The Texas Institute for Behavioral Science and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin external link

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