A 30-minute, self-administered online training module can protect adolescents from unhealthy responses to stress and related mental health consequences, suggests research funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. Scientists designed the training module, known as the “synergistic mindsets intervention,” to empower adolescents to harness both stressful events and stress responses to support their goals.
The work, which appears in Nature, was led by David S. Yeager, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin. Funding was provided by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Science Foundation, Google Empathy Lab, and the Jacobs Foundation.
Adolescents today are experiencing record-high levels of stress-related anxiety and feelings of sadness or depression. Conventional guidance to avoid stressful situations can be disadvantageous, as it leads many teenagers to disengage from potentially beneficial stressors, such as demanding academic coursework. Moreover, the social isolation and uncertainty about the future caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have created unavoidable stress.
To fulfill the need for tools to help adolescents engage positively with stressors, researchers designed the synergistic mindsets intervention to simultaneously target two sets of attitudes or beliefs: a growth mindset and a stress-can-be-enhancing mindset. The growth mindset centers 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. The stress-can-be-enhancing mindset encourages adolescents to view physiological stress responses such as sweaty palms, a racing heart, and deeper breathing as helpful, because they mobilize energy and deliver oxygenated blood to the brain and tissues.
The researchers conducted six related studies to assess the effects of the synergistic mindsets intervention on the stress experienced by high schoolers and undergraduate college students. The individual studies ranged in size from 118 to 2,717 participants. All focused on educational stressors, such as taking a timed quiz, giving a speech to classmates, or keeping up with academic work during COVID-19-related school closures.
Following the synergistic mindsets intervention, study participants reported less-negative views of stressful academic events and their responses to those stressors. The intervention also improved cardiovascular responses to a stress test and reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress. Furthermore, the findings suggest that the intervention improved participants’ psychological well-being and academic success and reduced anxiety during the 2020 COVID-19 university closures.
Analyses indicated that the combination of the two mindsets is more powerful than either of the component mindsets alone. Overall, the intervention’s effects were greatest for participants who had negative mindsets prior to completing the online module. However, some benefits—including lowering cortisol levels and improving academic achievement—were apparent irrespective of a participant’s prior mindsets.
“Our studies suggest that we might not teach adolescents that they are too fragile to overcome difficult struggles, but that we might instead provide them with the resources and guidance that they need to unleash their skills and creativity in addressing big problems,” the authors conclude. They note that the synergistic mindsets intervention could, in principle, be scaled nationally at low cost to help reduce adolescent stress.
The investigators note that the effects of synergistic mindsets intervention should be more fully assessed in large-scale studies in diverse populations and contexts. Such studies may inform decisions about how best to scale-up and implement the intervention.
Yeager DS et al. A synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress . Nature DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04907-7 (2022)
The Texas Behavioral Science and Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin