This letter contains breaking research Dr. Grauer presented to seniors. The senior year is filled with great opportunities. If you are a senior, or a senior parent, or if you just want a glimpse into educational thought that will change your life, enjoy this column.
The Stress Mindset And Your Senior Year
A letter for everyone who has ever had any stress
Welcome to your senior year—the launchpad for the rest of your life. Feeling overwhelmed or stressed? You're not alone, and that's good news. Why? Let's dive in.
But first, quickly jot down an answer to this: When was the last time you felt stress, and why? Keep this in mind; we'll revisit it later.
The Truth About Stress
Stress is often portrayed as the enemy, especially during life transitions like you're facing now. But what if I told you that understanding stress could become your superpower this year? Read on—this research will change your life.
Dr. Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford, might help you view stress in a whole new light. Dr. Crum’s “Stress Mindset Measure" is included at the bottom of this column . Try it now and again after you read this letter. Crum’s groundbreaking research, encapsulated in the paper "Rethinking Stress: the Role of Mindset in Determining Stress Response," reveals the untapped potential of stress to enhance performance, health, and even happiness."  This research has been ongoing at Stanford for nine years now and consistently shows the same results.
In a nutshell, students who saw stress as a performance booster performed significantly better in stressful situations. On the flip side, those who viewed stress as harmful performed poorly under the same conditions. In our lives, we all will hear a lot about what stress does: elevated heart rate, narrowing of peripheral vision, and adrenaline preparing us to run away from saber-toothed tigers trying to eat us. Whatever. But stress is a response that was given to us to mobilize us to do what we need to do, not just escape tigers. Stress is behind every motivation we have. No stress, no engagement in challenges.
The Choice is Yours
The takeaway is stunningly simple: Your mindset determines your response to stress. So, do you see stress as a threat. Okay, then it is guaranteed to impact you that way. See it as an opportunity? Your mind and body will react that way instead. Simple as that, and nine years of research at Stanford backs this up. The simple choice is yours. This choice could make all the difference, not just in your senior year, but in the hormones your brain triggers, and in your whole life ahead.
Sure, sleep is essential if you are to have a great year, as are things like hydration and exercise. But stress response is even more crucial and just as much up to you. Your mindset about stress plays a basic role in alertness, motivation, and happiness.
A Quick Detour to Science
Ever heard of the Yerkes-Dodson Law? In layman's terms, it says that a moderate amount of stress can actually improve performance. This "positive stress," or eustress, triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline, prepping your body and mind for action.
Understanding the necessity for stress allows us to create positive, growth mindsets that we need for alertness and success. It heightens our focus. It reduces the release of cortisol. Our hearts pump more blood. We feel alert—even our immune system strengthens. In high-functioning times like this, we believe in ourselves. We sleep well. We activate our own parasympathetic nervous system. We literally create new synapses in our brains. You can do none of that without a positive response to stress.
These amazing impacts occur from simply learning exactly what I am saying above, nothing more: no drugs, no treadmill, no deep breathing, no therapy (all of which can be helpful, also), just self-messaging on the benefits of the growth mindset and the benefits of stress as a positive challenge.
Not convinced? A 2022 study published in Nature Journal confirmed that teenagers who were taught to view stress positively exhibited lower stress levels and better performance. The best part? This mindset shift required just a 30-minute training session. [3, 4]
If you’d like some of that training, here is Dr. Crum's wonderful talk: link to the one-hour version ("How Mindsets Influence Health" on YouTube). And now here is Dr. Crum with a delightful 5-minute version: link to the 5-minute version ("The science of how mindset transforms the human experience" on YouTube).
Your Stories, Your Growth
Over my 32 years at The Grauer School, I've seen around 500 students navigate their way to post-high school life. Time and again, those who embrace challenges, including stress, come out on top. I'd love to hear your stories and moments when stress became your ally, not an enemy.
Take Charge Now!
Conventional thinking portrays stress as mostly a bad thing to be avoided or kept at bay.  But this ‘stress avoidance’ mentality ignores the reality that elevated levels of stress are a normal and, in many ways, even a desirable feature of adolescence. 
Proven fact: The direction of your stress response is up to you. Your mindset, not your circumstances, will define your senior year. I fully understand that many of you will feel like you are trapped, or that stress is a requirement for you. For the record, many of your parents feel the same stress that you do, and many of the private counselors and test prep companies are making money off that, motivated to get you in the game. So, the stress is 360. But here is the fact: how you approach stress is up to you. It’s your life.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about stress. It is heartbreaking seeing seniors spending perhaps the best year of their youth focused on the hardships of stress, and then seeing those fixed mindsets fulfilled through sleep deprivation, anxiety, and distraction. In truth, you are not trapped unless you pick that route.
So, returning to the question at the beginning of this letter: How would you answer it now? Has your perception of stress changed?
Make this year extraordinary. Own your stress; don't let it own you.
 The Stress Mindset Measure is copyrighted, but researchers, practitioners, and students are free to use it without permission as long as they give credit to the authors:* Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(4), 716.
 Crum AJ, Salovey P, Achor S. Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Apr;104(4):716-33. doi: 10.1037/a0031201. Epub 2013 Feb 25. PMID: 23437923.
 Synergistic mindsets' intervention, which is a self-administered online training module.
 Yeager, D. S. et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573, 364–369 (2019).
 pe, D. C. Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (Yale University Press, 2001).
 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth (National Academies Press, 2019).
Stress Mindset Measure (SMM)
This eight-item measure was developed by Crum, Salovey and Achor (2013). Participants rate items on a five-point scale ranging from 0=strongly disagree to 4=strongly agree. SMM scores are obtained by reverse scoring the four negative items (indicated by an *) and then taking the mean of all 8 items. Higher scores on the SMM represent the mindset that stress is enhancing. Cronbach’s alpha was .87 in this sample.
Crum, A., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Preliminary Questions (optional):
a. How much stress are you experiencing in your life right now?
(1=None, 4=A Moderate Amount, 7=An Extreme Amount)
b. What is the primary source of stress in your life?
c. How stressful do you perceive this to be?
(1=Not Stressful At All, 4=Moderately Stressful, 7=Extremely Stressful)
Stress Mindset Questions
Rate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following questions:
(Scoring: use this scale for all 8 questions)
0 = Strongly Disagree
1 = Disagree
2 = Neither Agree nor Disagree
3 = Agree
4 = Strongly Agree
- The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.*
- Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.
- Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.*
- Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.
- Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.*
- Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.
- Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.*
- The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.
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