Helping teens channel stress, grow in resilience

Adolescents today are more stressed than ever, exhibiting record levels of stress-related mental health problems. Of course, there are plenty of reasons for teens to worry. A global pandemic. War in Europe. Mass shootings, economic insecurity, and staggering college costs in the US.

Add to that the pernicious effects of the 24/7 exposure to social media. Teenagers’ psychological well-being, much more so than for other age groups, is affected by how they think their social environment — peers, teachers, parents, coaches — perceive and judge them.

“We receive an endless stream of likes, dislikes, and comments via social media, which makes for a constant state of social evaluation,” says Jeremy Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “That’s probably one of the most damaging things we’ve seen for adolescents.”

The mental health crisis among teens has prompted an urgent quest for preventive interventions. Jamieson, who heads up Rochester’s Social Stress Lab, and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, and the Google Empathy Lab, believe they have one.

As the team explains in a recent study in the journal Nature, the 30-minute online training module teaches teenagers to channel their stress responses away from something negative that needs to be feared and tamped down towards recognizing those responses — sweaty palms, a racing heart, for example — as a positive driving force.

The intervention works by helping teens develop what the researchers call two “synergistic mindsets.”

The first is a growth mindset — the idea that people’s intelligence can be developed in response to challenges, which helps the teenagers engage with difficult stressors. It’s “basically the belief that intellectual ability is not fixed but can be developed with effort, effective strategies, and support from others,” Jamieson says. “It’s the idea that if I push myself, I can grow, I can learn, I can improve, and I can push through difficulties.”

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