30-minute intervention to help reduce stress

Reframing the physical sensations stress induces and learning about how the brain works can alter physiology
11 July 2022

Interview with 

David Yeager, University of Texas at Austin


Since the pandemic started, rates of mental health issues in young people have soared; many teens and young adults trying to map out their futures say they’re dealing with extreme pressure. But a study published in Nature puts forward a 30 minute intervention that can dramatically turn things around. Psychologist David Yeager, from University of Texas at Austin, took Julia Ravey through the process, and explained how learning to harness stress is the key…

David - There's this tension, which comes from the fact that young people need to be spending a lot of time, gaining skills, preparing for a contribution and that's stressful. But that also is what brings meaning and purpose to our lives. And so it's kind of like a dilemma. Do you give in and not feel any stress, but then get off the path to a good future? Or do you burn out because you're always working and you're always pushing yourself.

Julia - You've come up with an intervention to help people in this situation handle stress. And so how did you come up with this?

David - The path we started down was the question of, okay, if you have someone who is, let's say about to do a major presentation at work, what do you say to that person about the stress that they're experiencing? And if you look around in society, the main message you hear about stress is that stress is bad and it should be avoided. If you are about to do a major presentation for your boss's boss, that's not the time to take a nap and go do yoga. You should be like preparing to do really well in that presentation. So we tried to figure out a way to help people embrace challenges, to use their stress as a resource, rather than as a deficit. And then in doing so, maybe help people cope with this feeling that everything is more than you can handle.

Julia - What is the mechanism in which you landed on? And then how have you tested this out?

David - So what we try to do is try to change adolescents and young people's beliefs or mindsets. So we give them real scientific information about the brain and about the body's stress system. And there are two different types of psychologies. We pull from one is the really well known concept of growth mindset. The idea that when you're challenged, it's a sign that you're growing. It's not a sign that you are dumb or that you lack ability in some way, the way we teach that is scientific information about how the brain can grow and develop like muscle. And then we pair that growth mindset idea with something that Alia Crum has called the stress can be enhancing mindset. And this is the idea that when the heart is pumping more blood through the body, when you feel your breathing rate increase, when you get that kick of adrenaline, that's actually your body preparing to move more oxygenated, blood to your brain, into your muscles, to optimise your performance. And then we have them read stories from older students like them, who've experienced stress in the past and who use this information. And last we have them write their own essay or story about how they could use this info.

Julia - I've just done the test before actually. And I thought it was really useful to think about how these hard situations are training us to better handle stressful situations in the future, and that our hearts racing, being helpful to get oxygen to our brains. So how has this reframing been found to help people in your studies?

David - We took a few hundred students and we put them in a rather intense stressor in the laboratory, and it's called a trier social stress test. It's kind of a hilarious test. And what you do is you bring people in, you hook them up to all the physio equipment to protect their heart rate and their breathing and so on. And then you say surprise, it's time for you to give a public speech about what makes someone popular. And then they have to give that speech for five minutes in front of a panel of judges who we've trained to kind of give you no positive feedback. They just are stone faced looking at their clipboards, judging and evaluating you. And the minute that speech is over, we say surprise again, it's time for you to do mental math. And so you have to count backwards from 968 in increments of 17 as fast as you can. So, as you can imagine, people's hearts are racing and their blood's flowing and, and they're sweating, and so on. What we find is that in the middle of that stressful speech and that stressful math, if you got our mindset intervention first, your physiology is actually different. Your body is pumping more blood to your extremities. And what we think that does is it means your brain is getting more oxygenated blood to actually optimize your performance. We went back to the university context. We did the intervention in January of 2020. We had this real world stressor, everyone was sent home from college because of COVID. And we found that especially in people who were the most vulnerable, there were fewer anxiety symptoms, three months later, among the people who got our treatment.

Julia - What situations would this test maybe not be applicable to?

David - We don't think this is something to give to people to say embrace the stress of trauma abuse or a panic attack. But apart from that, we think that a lot of people can benefit from this treatment just because they're anticipating stressors. And they're, they're thinking about what's gonna happen to them.



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