Novel Study on Adolescent Stress Proposes a New Method to Cope With It

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    Those stages of adolescence are convulsive times; full of physical, psychological and adaptive changes, rising expectations, and great social stress. It is “a crucial period”, says the World Health Organization (WHO), for the development of social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. Not surprisingly, half of mental health problems arise in this stage of life. Prevention, in capital letters, has become urgent and inspires the scientific community even to turn around one of the great risk factors for poor mental health: stress.

    A study published today in the journal Nature with more than 4,000 adolescents confronts this threat in young people and proposes, through an online intervention of just 30 minutes, a kind of change of chip on the meaning of stress: nothing better to protect yourself from he has to tolerate it, understand what happens to the body when stress levels rise and turn it into something positive to improve learning and managing these situations.

    With a half-hour online intervention, the researchers break with the negative view of stress and change the point of view. “Adolescents must acquire a wide and varied range of complex social and intellectual skills as they transition into adult social roles and prepare for economic independence. This development process is inherently stressful, but it is also essential for the task of becoming an adult”, they defend in their study and invite to relate positively with the academic and social stressors of this stage of life, such as relationship problems between equals or the fear of being rejected, for example.

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    “Stress is one of the most serious problems facing young people today, and most treatments don’t work, so we needed new scientific innovation to develop novel treatments,” David justifies. S. Yeager, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas and a signer of the study. The authors propose a telematic intervention that the kids can do by themselves, without supervision or external assistance. Instead of minimizing or avoiding stress, they try to “optimize” it, to make the most of it, explains Yeager: “People often tell teens to deal with stress by distracting themselves or avoiding it. But that does not get to the root of the problem, which stems from all the stressful demands of school and work. Our alternative strategy is to teach young people to accept their challenges and use their responses to stress as fuel for optimal performance. We do this by changing the way you think: your beliefs about your abilities and about your responses to stress”.

    The researchers intervene through “a synergistic mental activity”, which consists of a double approach: the growth mentality, which is the belief that the capacities of each one can be developed and the stressors can be useful and controllable when learning skills to overcome them; and the stress improvement mentality, which is based on understanding the physiological response to this situation (sweaty hands, feeling anxious…) and seeing it positively, as a tool to boost performance.

    The entire study was done double-blind: there was a group of students who received the intervention and another, the control group, who did not, and neither knew who got what. In practice, the intervention consisted of providing neuroscientific information about the potential of the brain to develop stronger connections when facing and overcoming challenges, explaining the body’s reactions to stressors (palpitations, sweating, feelings of anxiety…), providing a summary of scientific research on human performance and stress, and show experiences of previous participants (older students, if any). The control group was also offered 30 minutes of an online activity, but with different content.

    The scientists tested their intervention with 6 experiments involving a total of 4,291 US students. All the studies focused on common stressors in adolescence, such as imagining doing a job in a short time on the subject they disliked the most or having to give an oral presentation. Then, they analyzed the stress levels of the students, from different parameters, such as emotional well-being, anxiety symptoms or cortisol levels, which isthe hormone that the body secretes in stressful situations.

    The results of these variables demonstrated the benefits of a single 30-minute session of this “synergistic mental activity” which, in addition, according to the researchers, is easily scalable to the adolescent population. Scientists have seen effects of this technique up to nine months after surgery, but they want to test it further, Yeager admits. Esther Calvete, professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Deusto and director of Deusto Stress Research, is well acquainted with the techniques used by American researchers. They are called “intelligent interventions” —wise interventions, in English—, she explains: “It is a paradigm of interventions that are characterized by being based on very rigorous scientific knowledge to carry out preventive actions. There are several types, but they have in common that, in general, they are all brief, a single session, and it is a change of chip in the way of interpreting something in our lives”. Another characteristic of these interventions, she adds, is that “they are subtle”: “The intervention is masked as that we need your help. We enter from respect, we ask them to help us and that, in adolescents, is an approach that makes them not rebel or resist, which is what

    usually happens with most interventions [in this group]. This way they get more involved and better assimilate the information”.

    In the case of the Nature study, it combines 2 of these wise interventions, the researcher points out: “One is to label the symptoms differently, because when we realize that we have those typical symptoms of stress, we feel bad and enter in a vicious circle in which we do everything fatal”. On the other technique, the growth mindset, Calvete has also done studies and has tested its effects on online peer victimization. “We can have beliefs about our traits that are like something fixed and unchangeable, but they evolve. We can show, with scientific information about how the brain works, how you can change the belief you have about your intelligence or your personality, for example”, adds the researcher. This type of technique, Calvete concludes, “leads you to interpret things in an adaptive way and you feel more capable of handling stressors”.

    Great potential

    Antoni Ramos Quiroga, head of Psychiatry at the Valld’Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, ​​defends the “power” of American research. “It is a very intelligent intervention because they are based on a reality, which is that stress exists. And it is about giving these situations a comeback and seeing that you can improve them yourself”, says the doctor, who has not participated in the study. Ramos Quiroga also highlights that it is an “online self-help system that you do yourself, you do not need a psychologist by your side”.

    Víctor Pérez, head of Psychiatry at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, ​​also positively values ​​this intervention: “It has tremendous potential if it is implemented throughout the United States, for example. It could be done in schools. The psychiatrist, who has not participated in the study either, points out that, in situations of known stress —such as the everyday examples exposed by the study—, “a progressive approach can be made, training the subject to know that stress and learn to manage it” . “If you progressively adapt to stress, your ability to avoid it decreases. It is what we do in therapy with phobias”, adds the psychiatrist.

    The key, says Pérez, is to understand that stress has positive parts: “It is about acknowledging stress, which does not always have to be negative and can help you react. And this is a very topical issue because the autonomous communities are also considering making interventions in adolescents to work on managing emotions and stress”. Yeager assures that any school, university or workplace could share it “during orientation sessions, to help them have a mindset that prepares them for success” and since it is a short intervention in time, “it could be done broadly to a very low cost”.

    From a technical point of view, the Valld’Hebron psychiatrist highlights the high number of participants and that the study has managed to replicate the positive results in six different experiments. Calvete adds that the methodology is very solvent: “There are several experiments and with polygraphic measurements. It has impressive scientific support and a methodology of the utmost rigor”.


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