Image credits: Jesús Rodríguez.

The teenage years can be pretty stressful. There’s a lot of homework and school, exams are around the corner, and there’s a lot of pressure and expectations from parents and family. Social relationships are becoming more complex, and there are also physical changes — it’s a challenging time. With the pandemic social isolation and the uncertainty about the future, things have only gotten worse.

“Adolescents today are suffering record levels of stress-related anxiety and depressive symptoms,” write the authors of a new study. “This has prompted public health experts to call for urgent action to mitigate the forthcoming ‘mental health pandemic’ by understanding and addressing adolescent stress.”

But stress shouldn’t be seen as a strictly bad thing — especially for adolescence. This “stress avoidance” mentality ignores the reality that elevated stress levels are a normal feature of adolescence. In many ways, writes the team led by David Yeager from the University of Texas at Austin, it’s even a desirable feature.

“Adolescents must acquire a wide and varied array of complicated social and intellectual skills as they transition to adult social roles and prepare for economic independence. This developmental process is inherently stressful, but it is also essential to the task of becoming an adult. The conventional view that high levels of stress are toxic is likely to lead many adolescents simply to disengage from stressors such as demanding coursework, putting them at a serious disadvantage in the future,” the authors write in the study.

Instead of teaching stress avoidance, researchers suggest we should find a way to help young people embrace and overcome stress — a skill that will undoubtedly be useful throughout their entire lives. The researchers propose using two mindsets:

  • the growth mindset — an idea that intelligence and ability are not fixed, but can be developed with effort, effective strategies, and support from others. This mindset encourages people to see stressors like advanced coursework as helpful, because they provide an opportunity for learning, and controllable, because the abilities to overcome it can be developed;
  • the “stress-can be enhancing” mindset” — which centers on understanding stress and our psychological and physiological response to it. For instance, stress causes bodily responses like a racing heart and heavier breathing, and these responses can be positive for mobilizing energy and focus. They can also be controlled once you understand them: you choose to take advantage of these responses, they don’t control you.
Image credits: Yeager et al.

The team assessed the effects of these synergistic mindset interventions in six double-blind experiments on six different groups of students in the United States (4,291 students in total, from secondary school to undergraduate level). They measured the students’ stress levels, looking at things such as psychological wellbeing, anxiety symptoms, academic success and stress-related cognitions, hormones, and cardiovascular reactivity.

The results showed that a single 30-minute online session based on an approach that targeted both the growth mindset and the stress-can-be-enhancing mindset can protect adolescents (especially vulnerable adolescents) from unhealthy responses to stress and the associated negative mental health outcomes.

Because it was such a short session that can also be done online, and because it’s also very cheap, the researchers say the interventions can be scaled nationally to address the growing problem of adolescent stress.

Ultimately, the researchers say it’s important to frame things in a way that’s empowering to adolescents.

“In a time characterized by political division and social unrest, climate change, rising inequality and geopolitical conflict, it is critical that young people gain the knowledge and skills that they will need to solve humanity’s challenges when they take over society’s important institutions. Adolescence, after all, is a developmental stage that is uniquely suited to reshaping the future.

“Therefore, we propose an alternative narrative that emphasizes the role of young people in taking on the formidable challenges of the future. 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.”

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