We tend to think of stress as having clear, definable causes. You're stressed because your workload is too high, your company is at a turning point, or you can't get reliable childcare. The solution, if that's the case, is equally concrete. Maybe you take a vacation, raise capital, or hire a babysitter. Anyway, in order to kill stress, you have to change something significant about your life circumstances.  

But what if radically reducing your stress didn't require changing your lifestyle, but only changing your mind? A new paper laying out the effects of a simple 30-minute online class, that helps students reframe how they think about stress, suggests it's possible. 

When it comes to managing stress, mindset matters a lot. 

Being a teenager has never been easy, but thanks to Covid, technology, and general world turbulence, it's been particularly stressful the last few years. Solving climate change, improving vaccines, or redesigning social media might help this generation thrive, but all those things are hard. A team led by a pair of professors out of the University of Texas at Austin has something much easier in mind. Could a quick 30-minute online course help students better cope with the many stresses they face? 

To figure this out, they teamed up with researchers from Stanford, the Google Empathy Lab, and other institutions to create a course teaching two simple but powerful ideas. One is the much-chattered-about growth mindset, which holds that people can improve their abilities through hard work. The second is the idea that stress is actually our body's way to prepare us for a challenge. Stress, even if it feels unpleasant in the moment, is a natural performance booster.  

Neither of these ideas is new. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has been developing and promoting the growth mindset idea for years, while her Stanford colleague Kelly McGonigal has a popular TED talk reframing stress as a healthy and natural way to cope with difficulties. The UT Austin team's contribution was to package these ideas together, deliver them in a short online course, and carefully measure the results. 

Small intervention, big results 

To do that, the team conducted six randomized controlled trials of their online class with teens and undergraduates, presenting it to more than 4,000 young people. What did they find? The study was recently published in Nature and the results are impressive. 

Students who took the course (as opposed to a placebo course about the brain) were 14 percent more likely to pass their classes at the end of the year. Those who went through the training had lower levels of anxiety months later. And when the researchers sprung a surprise public speaking challenge (complete with a judging panel instructed to look unimpressed and grumpy) on some of the study participants, those who had taken the class had lower levels of physiological markers of stress -- like an elevated heart rate. 

The findings, the researchers say, contradict the usual advice to focus on reducing stress by changing your lifestyle or leaning on coping strategies. As we all know, reality can make that hard to do, and it can distract from other approaches that are more helpful. 

David Yeager, the study's first author, told the Guardian that the approach developed by his team "went against the 'pervasive ethic of self-care' that often appears to view stress as uniquely negative and suggests people 'go do yoga or have a chamomile tea.' That's a way to distract yourself but it doesn't help you deal with the underlying cause of stress."  

A DIY stress-busting course 

If you're looking for a stronger stress buster than herbal tea, then this study is good news for you. The intervention tested by the scientists is designed for students, but there's no reason you can't devote 30 minutes to seeing if it might be useful for you, as well. 

If you think a deeper dive into the ideas animating the class might be more effective, Dweck's book Mindset lays out her work on the topic. We've covered it in less detail here on Inc.com many times in the past. McGonigal has a book too, and her TED talk is below. She also suggests quick exercises that can help you learn to view stress differently

There's no guarantee that a DIY approach to mastering these principles will be as effective as the researchers' carefully controlled experiments (the team also emphasizes that this approach is not appropriate for dealing with stress from trauma). But the team's results do strongly suggest that just about anyone can benefit from rethinking how they approach stress.