AUSTIN, Texas — Many young people today suffer from stress-related anxiety and depressive symptoms. A new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin finds that a 30-minute online training on how to think about stress and adversity can reduce both short- and long-term mental health symptoms, offering a potential low-cost treatment to combat a growing adolescent mental health crisis.
The study, published in Nature, evaluates the impact of training students in grades 8-12 and college undergraduates on “growth mindset,” which is the idea that challenges like a hard class in school can be opportunities to learn and grow, and “stress-can-be-enhancing mindset,” which is the idea that physiological stress responses such as sweaty palms and a racing heart can be fuel for optimum performance.
“This intervention teaches adolescents two big ideas, which when combined synergistically can have a powerful effect,” said David Yeager, an associate professor of psychology who co-led the study with Christopher Bryan, assistant professor of business, government and society at UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business. “For the first time, we figured out how to put these two ideas together into an intervention that helps adolescents deal with stress in the real world.”
Yeager and Bryan, with Jared Murray, assistant professor of information, risk and operations management at UT McCombs, Jeremy Jamieson from the University of Rochester, James Gross from Stanford University and Danielle Krettek Cobb from the Google Empathy Lab, tested the intervention over the course of six double-blind, randomized experiments. The experiments were conducted in laboratory and field settings with 4,291 participants. Students could give the 30-minute online training module to themselves, so no specialized or trained staffers were needed to deliver it, which made the module highly scalable.
Many of the participants showed improved physiological responses to stress, such as reductions in the levels of the hormone cortisol, which indicate whether people are coping well with a stressful experience. Participants who received the intervention also reported fewer mental health symptoms in high school and during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, suggesting that the reduction in stress can generalize to diverse sets of stressors and situations. In one study, high school students who received the intervention were more likely to pass their courses a year later.
The researchers said the synergistic mindsets intervention is a breakthrough because it contradicts the typical advice to overwhelmed young people, which emphasizes stress reduction — disengaging from stressful demands.
“This advice can have the unfortunate effect of depriving young people of opportunities to acquire valuable skills and knowledge they will need to compete in an increasingly technically demanding economy,” Bryan said. “The synergistic mindsets intervention, by contrast, helps young people to thrive rather than becoming overwhelmed by intense education-related stress.”
The team notes that their intervention applies mostly to growth-promotive stressors, such as formal schooling or meeting a deadline in the workplace. They caution that this kind of approach would not be suitable for addressing trauma, abuse or structural inequalities. However, results suggest this scalable intervention may provide young people with the resources and guidance they need to unleash their skills and creativity, even amid intense stress, which can be critical for addressing humanity’s many challenges.