Flipping the script on stress

Binghamton University researchers help students use stress to their advantage

Can college students change how they react to stress and use it as a motivator? Binghamton University researchers are exploring the connection between personality and "stress mindset." Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Can college students change how they react to stress and use it as a motivator? Binghamton University researchers are exploring the connection between personality and
Can college students change how they react to stress and use it as a motivator? Binghamton University researchers are exploring the connection between personality and "stress mindset." Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Jennifer Wegmann ’94, MA ’01, PHD ’18, is a bit apologetic when she recalls a stress management course she used to teach.

As a lecturer in the Health and Wellness Studies Division of Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences, she’d accepted the teaching assignment at the last minute. The overarching message of the textbook was a commonly accepted admonishment: “Eradicate stress or it will make you sick!”

A TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress, changed her thinking, her teaching — and her dissertation topic. But that was later.

“I was old school. I feel bad about those early years,” she says.

Today, Wegmann has a different outlook on stress, starting with the understanding that our reaction to it is rooted in our individual stress mindset, which is the belief that stress can lead to either enhancing or debilitating outcomes.

“If you believe stress is going to kill you, that belief may contribute to negative outcomes. If you believe stress has the potential to make you more productive or more resilient, you may experience positive outcomes,” she explains.

But can people, particularly students, change what they believe?

Wegmann wanted to know, and that became the basis of research that asks two questions:

  • Can improving your well-being through health and wellness classes change your stress mindset?
  • How does your personality influence that process?

The two questions reflect gaps in previous research, Wegmann says. “There was no literature examining the relationship between personality and stress mindset. To date, all the interventions for eliciting changes in stress mindset have been targeted to changing stress mindset, not on broadly improving wellness.”

HOW STRESSED ARE YOU?

At the beginning of the fall 2017 semester, students in health and wellness classes — such as yoga, weight training and nutrition — completed a questionnaire about their personality traits based on the five characteristics often used in psychology: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

A person who’s high in openness is more curious than cautious. A high score in agreeableness means the person is more friendly than detached. And a high score in neuroticism indicates a likelihood to be nervous rather than secure.

Students were also asked about their stress mindset. Then, at the end of the semester, they were resurveyed about their stress mindset (changes in personality traits happen slowly, usually over a lifetime).

Wegmann’s collaborators on the research project are from the School of Management: Shelley Dionne, associate dean and professor of leadership; Chou-Yu Tsai, assistant professor; and doctoral student Jason Marshall.

Their hypothesis was that individuals with higher scores in neuroticism and lower scores in the other four traits and who participate in health and wellness education would experience positive changes in stress mindset over time.

But, Wegmann says, they found that there were just three personality characteristics that most benefited from wellness education.

“Students who were high on the neuroticism scale, low on the conscientious scale and low on the openness scale were the ones in whom we saw significant changes in stress mindset over the course of the semester through wellness education,” she says.

“Why?” is a question the group is discussing as they prepare to submit a paper for publication. But Wegmann is already sharing what she’s learned with the students she’s teaching.

“The take-home message, and this is what I tell my students, is that your personality is not an obstacle. So many people think, ‘This is how I am and I can’t change.’

“But what I do know is that over the course of the past three years, my research is showing me that your personality is not a roadblock to changing your beliefs about stress,” she says.

And students like what she’s saying.

“The feedback we get from students is phenomenal. They say it changes the way they think about stress,” Wegmann says. “This means we have the opportunity to help students change their negative relationship with stress, which may help them experience more positive outcomes.”

Posted in: Health, Decker