Reframing the understanding of stress can make a big difference to student well-being, their success

Sweaty palms during a job interview. Running heartbeat before walking down the aisle. Stomach pain before a final exam. Many of us have experienced a classic stress reaction under new, unusual or high pressure circumstances.

But reassessing how you perceive stress can make a big difference to a person’s mental health, general well-being and success, according to psychologists at the University of Rochester.

For their latest study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Rochester researchers trained teens and young adults at a community college to treat their stress response as a tool rather than a barrier. The team found that in addition to reducing students’ anxiety, this reset of the ‘good stress’ mindset helped them perform better on tests, procrastinate less, stay enrolled in classes. and tackle academic challenges in a healthier way.

To reframe their understanding of stress, students performed a standardized reading and writing exercise that taught them that their stress responses had a function in performance contexts that applied directly to them, such as taking tests. .

We use a “saying is believing” approach in which participants discover the adaptive benefits of stress and are invited to write about how it can help them achieve it. “

Jeremy Jamieson, senior author, associate professor of psychology in Rochester and senior researcher, University’s Social Stress Lab

He studies how experiences of stress affect decisions, emotions and performance. The study builds on his previous research on optimizing stress responses.

Questions and answers

Stress often gets a bad rap. How can stress really be a good thing?

Conventional thinking suggests that stress is inherently bad and should always be avoided. This can sometimes be misguided as stress is a normal and even defining feature of modern life. For example, students preparing for their first job interview may perceive their pounding hearts and sweaty palms as signs that they are nervous and about to ‘bomb’ when, in fact, the stress response. helps supply oxygen to the brain and release hormones that mobilize energy. .

Throughout life, people must acquire a wide and diverse range of complex social and intellectual skills, and then apply those skills in order to thrive. This process is inherently stressful, but it is also essential for being a productive member of society. Additionally, if people simply disengaged from the stressors they were facing, it could put them at a serious disadvantage. So, in order for people to thrive in modern life and overcome threats to their personal and global survival, they must find a way to embrace and overcome stressful demands.

What exactly is reassessment or reassessment of stress?

People experience an increase in sympathetic arousal – which can be sweaty palms or a faster heartbeat – during stressful situations. Instead of seeing everything as “bad” stress, stress responses, including arousal to stress, can be beneficial in terms of psychological, biological, performance and behavioral outcomes.

Stress reassessment is not intended to eliminate or alleviate stress. It does not encourage relaxation, but rather focuses on changing the type of stress response: whether we believe we have enough resources to meet the demands presented to us; it doesn’t matter if the demands are high; if we think we can handle them, our bodies will react with the response to the challenge, which means that stress is viewed as a challenge rather than a threat.

What happened to the “reassessment” students compared to the control group?

In our study of community college students taking math courses, we found that reassessment participants had lower levels of math assessment anxiety both immediately and on a subsequent exam. They also performed better on the examination than the control group immediately after completing our reassessment exercise.

We then assessed procrastination and goals outside of the classroom. While we only measured procrastination once, so I can’t speak to the lagged effects there, the re-evaluation students reported having less procrastination, which then predicted higher scores when of their next review.

We also found that re-assessed students reported more approach goals, that is, goals focused on getting positive results, such as winning a game or passing a test, rather than winning a test. avoid negative outcomes like trying not to lose a game or not. fail a test; that predict positive performance results and well-being.

You looked at the levels of cortisol and testosterone in both of your groups. What did you find?

Generally speaking, cortisol is a catabolic stress hormone and elevations are seen when people are threatened. Thus, it is often interpreted as an indicator of “negative stress” although it is not always “bad”, whereas testosterone is an anabolic hormone which promotes optimal performance.

We found that reassessment manipulation resulted in increased testosterone and decreased cortisol in students for classroom exam situations, which is a useful model for performing at its peak.

What advice do you have for parents whose children are stressed and anxious, especially now during the pandemic?

The first step is to separate stress from distress and anxiety. Stress is simply the body’s response to any demand, good or bad. Excitement is a state of stress, just like anxiety.

It’s also important for parents to understand that struggles are normal and can even promote growth with the right support. No one innovates and thrives without stepping out of their comfort zone. In order for children to grow, learn and succeed, they will need to be engaged and take on difficult tasks. The goal should not be to help children get an A, but rather to push the limits of their knowledge and ability. Taking that tough math class and getting an average grade may be more important to long-term success than just taking an easy class and doing well.

Normalizing stressful experiences and overcoming obstacles can help children understand that they can do difficult things. Reduce stress by removing obstacles, such as eliminating exams, facilitating lessons, etc. can even hinder their progress.


Journal reference:

Jamieson, JP, et al. (2021) Stress Arousal Reassessment Improves Emotional, Neuroendocrine, and Academic Outcomes in Community College Classrooms. Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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