Stressed about Stress? Think again—and differently
A new study by Nathan Huebschmann ’19 and Associate Professor of Psychology Erin Sheets shows the power of thinking positively about stress on a new population
Are you someone who sees the glass half-full or half-empty? How about when you’re stressed? Those who think positively about stress have better mental health, according to a study by Nathan Huebschmann ’19 and Associate Professor of Psychology Erin Sheets published in Anxiety, Stress, & Coping: An International Journal March 5.
“I think a lot of times, you feel like, [the] power of positive thinking, that sounds great, but it’s cool to show it with actual data of Colby students,” said Huebschmann, a psychology major, who produced the study as part of his honors thesis together with Sheets.
In the study, Huebschmann and Sheets used four different methods to assess 293 Colby students’ perception of stress as well as their mental health. One of the measures determined each participant’s stress mindset, revealing how they think about stress. According to that measure, those who believe that stress can have positive effects have a stress-is-enhancing mindset. Those who believe the opposite have a stress-is-debilitating mindset.
The remaining measures evaluated the participants’ perceived stress level along with depression and anxiety symptoms. Then the study dug deeper: a month after completing the questionnaires, 269 students, about 92 percent of the participants, were resurveyed to record the changes in their stress level and mental health conditions.
“When it comes to mental health issues, we now realize that these are very significant issues on college campuses,” said Sheets, whose research interest focuses on college mental health. And the most common mental health concerns are depression and anxiety, she noted. “A place like Colby, where people do experience a lot of stress and have different experiences in terms of mental health over the time that they’re here—this is a great place for us to be able to understand those things more.” That’s especially true for stress mindset, which hasn’t been analyzed in depth on college students before.
The conclusion Huebschmann and Sheets reached was a positive correlation between perceived stress and mental health, meaning that the higher one’s perceived stress, the greater their mental health concerns. “If we consider stress as a sign of things that matter to us, then it doesn’t entirely have to be negative and there’s clear evidence that it can focus our attention and help us perform better,” said Sheets. “If we entirely think of it as a negative experience, it’ll just get in the way.”
Stress mindset moderates the association between the two, the study also found.
“If you have high levels of perceived stress but you have a mindset that stress can be enhancing and it’s not necessarily negative, then you’re at a lower risk for developing depressive symptoms and anxiety,” said Huebschmann, who is now a clinical research coordinator at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Massachusetts General Hospital.
But for those on the other end of the spectrum—their model identified a possible danger.
“If you’re someone who has a stress-is-debilitating mindset and you have high levels of perceived stress, you’re actually at risk for developing a mild depression,” said Huebschmann.
While acknowledging that changing one’s perception is hard, he is hoping that this study will prompt his peers and others to think differently about stress.
“If you can try to think of stress with a more positive mindset,” he said, “you can potentially help yourself [to] better cope with it and better deal with stress in your life—and also have less of the negative impact on your anxiety and other symptoms.”
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