Close your eyes. Go back to high school and the moment of high stakes in your most difficult course with the toughest teacher. I’ll go first: : Senior year, Mr. Trice, AP Physics Final Exam. I remember where I sat. I remember looking at the paper and feeling like I didn’t know any of the answers. The heart was pounding; my palms were sweating. I was sure I would fail.
There was no happy ending for me in overcoming adversity. I was able to forego my final test by taking the real AP exam, which I also bombed. Unsurprisingly, I find the experience a bad, lasting embarrassment. But maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Recalling such experiences in a new light is the first step in a promising new intervention designed to help adolescents cope with stress and anxiety. Step two is to arm them with clear, accessible information so that the next time they experience it, they will see the experience as a way to learn and grow, and even as a resource for prosperity.
The document published on July 6 in Nature reports that it is a one-time online intervention that takes about 30 minutes, improved young people’s views on stressful events (eg my physics test) and their hurtful answers (eg my fast heartbeat). The intervention combines a growth mindset, the belief that abilities are not fixed but can be developed with effort and support, and a stress-enhancing mindset, the belief that physiological responses to stress can be an advantage. When students do the exercise themselves, they read about how the brain builds on experience and how the body uses stress—a beating heart delivers extra oxygen-rich blood to the brain, which helps you think better. They see it working in the real world: There’s a story about a calculus professor who greets students on their first day of class with a reminder of the frustrations they’re sure to experience and the reassurance that struggle is learning. The intervention hints at strategies for succeeding in stressful situations (“Remind yourself that feelings of confusion and struggle with difficult schoolwork will not last forever”). And he asks participants to write about what they might do differently next time.
Rigorously tested in multiple experiments involving thousands of high school and college students before and during the pandemic, the brief, scalable intervention appears to change something fundamental: the way we interpret and respond to the world around us. Compared to the control group, the intervention group thought about stress differently, turning it into a means of increasing motivation to achieve a goal. But the intervention also changed their physiological responses for the better, causing the body to respond to events as a challenge rather than a threat. It lowers cortisol levels and improves cardiovascular function. It also reduced overall anxiety levels, in some cases with long-lasting effects.
“Hardship and struggle is your friend,” says Christopher Bryan, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the new study. He says those experiences don’t feel good at the moment, “but it’s a path that anyone who’s ever become truly great at anything has had to go through.”
Intervention is not just a hypothetical exercise. The stress experienced by teenagers has taken on terrifying proportions. Last December, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced adolescent mental health a public health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, and anxiety disorders top the mental health problems facing young people. “If you can change your mindset about what anxiety is and isn’t, how to be anxious in the right way, everything changes,” says Tracy Dennis-Tiwari, professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York. and the author Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even If It’s Bad), who was not involved in the study. “This paper is a beautiful empirical demonstration of this potential.”
A critique of some previous thinking studies highlighted the lack of statistical rigor or significant effects of the intervention on participants. The new paper uses Bayesian analysis, which is widely considered a more reliable measure of the effects of behavioral interventions than other methods, such as tests of the null hypothesis of statistical significance. Effect size—a measure of how strong a finding is—ranged from small to large across the six experiments. And, as you might expect, they were higher in the lab experiments than in the real world. But they always mattered. “[The study] had broad, multi-level effects on important and well-validated measures of stress and anxiety,” says Dennis-Tiwari.
Interestingly, the intervention did not work equally well for everyone. “The most vulnerable people at the most stressful times benefit the most,” says David Yeager, a developmental psychologist at UT Austin and co-author of the paper. He emphasizes that the intervention is not intended for survivors of trauma and abuse, but that there is generally no harm in administering it. In addition to addressing mental health issues, the intervention aims to help teenagers participate in challenging courses and projects. At a charter school in one experiment, 63 percent of participants took math and science classes, compared to 47 percent of students in a control group.
The researchers found that they had to redesign a previous growth mindset intervention. The former exercise proved effective, especially for low-achieving students, in a national study of more than 12,000 students informed v Nature in 2019. But this did not take into account the feeling of visceral butterflies in the stomach. “That’s a limitation of previous mindset interventions because we’ve forgotten or ignored those stressful emotions,” Jaeger says.
The benefits of the new “synergistic” intervention may be significant, he says, although more study of its long-term effects is needed. The exercise is currently focused on academic outcomes, but could be adapted for use in athletics or the workplace. It is already in use with incoming first-year students in math and science classes at UT Austin. After more thorough testing, Yeager would like to make the intervention available for free to high schools and colleges nationwide. Another way to expand the idea, he says, is to show professors and administrators not only how to use the intervention, but how to support the ideas he explores when they talk to young people entering campus life or the workplace.
These researchers don’t just want teenagers to change their attitudes about stress; they want adults to rethink the way they think about teenagers. “We offer an alternative narrative that emphasizes the role of young people in taking on the difficult challenges of the future,” they write in the paper. “Our research shows that we can’t teach teenagers that they’re too fragile to overcome tough struggles, but instead we can give them the resources and guidance they need to unlock their skills and creativity in solving big problems.”