- We often attempt to deal with stress by avoiding it. That doesn't work.
- Instead, we need to focus on how we interpret the stressful experiences we inevitably encounter.
- A "synergistic mindset" appraises stress optimistically by considering how it's helpful, including as a way to improve the self.
Life is stressful.
What makes stress more difficult to navigate is that many of us haven't yet developed effective approaches for dealing with it. Too often, the default way of dealing with stress is to try to avoid it. As we all know, that isn't terribly effective because many (most?) of life's stressors are unavoidable. For that reason, it's important to develop effective coping strategies that can help now, and into the future. Since we can't prevent stress from happening in the first place, we can get better at how we interpret the stress we do experience.
Being a teen in today's world is stressful. Despite not having the pressures of a full-time job, a mortgage, or raising a family, teenagers experience their fair share of stress. For them, stress comes from social/peer pressures, establishing a sense of identity, academic demands, planning their future, and yes, dealing with their parents.
A team of researchers, including scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, University of Rochester, and Google's Empathy lab sought to determine the best way for helping teens address their stress (Yeager et al., 2022). Because stress is often inescapable, the researchers wanted to focus on strategies that helped adolescents shift their perspective and meet stress head-on.
They examined two key possibilities:
Growth Mindset: The idea that our ability is not permanent, and that we can develop our skills and intelligence. In the context of stress, this "...casts normal but challenging stressors (for example, rigorous, advanced coursework) as both helpful (because they provide opportunities for valuable learning and skill development) and controllable (because the abilities needed to overcome them can be developed)."
Stress-Can-Be-Enhancing Mindset: Generally, this is the perspective that experiencing difficulties and stress has benefits. Specifically that stress stimulates physiological responses that help us optimize performance. In the context of stress, teens "...can choose to take advantage of the enhanced capacity for performance it (stress) fuels rather than being worried and distracted by it." In other words, see stress as an asset rather than a burden.
Here's the innovative part: The researchers presented both mindsets together as one integrated "synergistic mindset." Growth mindset should help teens appraise situations more optimistically and not see stress as certain doom, while the stress enhancement mindset should help teens see how stress can help, rather than hinder them. Both mindsets work together synergistically to yield even greater benefits than either mindset by itself.
Across six randomized double-blind controlled studies, over 4,000 participants took self-administered online synergistic mindset training modules that lasted 30 minutes. That's important too because the researchers are examining a relatively low "dose" that requires very little time and effort from teens.
Their results indicated that learning about a synergistic mindset "can protect vulnerable adolescents against unhealthy threat-type responses to normal social-evaluative stress and the negative mental health outcomes associated with such stress responses." More specifically, teens who learned a synergistic mindset reported less stress, had lower cardiovascular reactivity, lower daily cortisol levels, lower anxiety, improved academic success, and enhanced well-being. Importantly, it was the combination of both mindsets working together that yielded the benefits.
Stress is a difficult but unavoidable aspect of life. Instead of looking at stress as an entirely negative experience, seeing it as a way to develop your skills and resiliency, as well as an asset that can help you achieve your goals, is a useful coping strategy.
Yeager, D. S., Bryan, C. J., Gross, J. J., Murray, J. S., Krettek Cobb, D., H F Santos, P., Gravelding, H., Johnson, M., & Jamieson, J. P. (2022). A synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress. Nature, 607(7919), 512–520. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04907-7