College

College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

10 October 2020

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Riana Phillips is a researcher on a mission to help teenagers cope with stress. As we stop to check in with ourselves for World Mental Health Day, it is important to recognise how the pressures of school life can impact our children’s mental health. Riana explains how her PhD research aims to teach teenagers how to flip their stress and use it for good.

All aboard the emotional rollercoaster

We all know, being a teenager is not easy. It's an emotional roller coaster where your hormones are changing, on top of trying to balance school, friends and relationships - it is stressful. Over time, repeated stress can lead to mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, the leading cause of death in our young people is suicide.

But let's take a step back for a minute. Why do we get stressed? In the past, when we faced a stressor, like say a woolly mammoth, our fight or flight response was activated and it gave us the energy needed to either take on the threat or to just run away. Nowadays we don’t exactly come across too many woolly mammoths, but our fight or flight stress response is still activated when we face new or unpredictable situations where we feel a lack of control, like for example school exams, or just trying to work out what we want to do in the future.

Harnessing the positivity in stress

It is close to impossible to completely remove stressors from our life. But what if we could flip stress into something positive?  According to recent research, people can have either ‘stress is enhancing’ or ‘stress is debilitating’ mindsets. People with a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset often view things that scare them as challenges rather than threats.

If we use the woolly mammoth analogy - a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset caveman would think: "Yeah, this mammoth is scary, but my body is going to give me what I need to face it and I am going to learn from it". But don't stress. Even if you don't automatically have a positive stress mindset, you can still be the 'stress is enhancing' caveman by training your brain. Education is key here. Short videos or journal articles teaching people about their stress response and how to channel this energy can help maximise performance.

So why not teach teenagers this? This is where my PhD comes in. Rather than giving teenagers a long tedious stress management program, my school-based intervention uses four five-minute videos to teach high school students about their attitudes towards stress, how stress can be both positive and negative and how they can use stress to their advantage. Before and after these videos I will look at their stress mindset, stress levels and mental health state.

In the end, these videos may be enough to help improve school performance, promote mental health and increase quality of life. Our stress response was designed to turn threats into challenges, so it’s time to face some woolly mammoths and fight for mental health now rather than later.

If you're passionate about making a difference, find out more about JCU Medicine and Dentistry.

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Featured researcher

Riana Philips

PhD Candidate

Riana Phillips is a PhD candidate conducting research in the Laboratory of Psychiatric Neuroscience, run by Professor Zoltan Sarnyai, at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine. She has a degree in psychology from JCU and works as a casual academic within the field.

Riana has a strong interest in using neuroscience-informed stress education programs to help adolescents cope with stress. Her current PhD project is a cross-cultural collaboration with the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal, Canada. This collaboration involves using a short online stress optimisation intervention to help Queensland adolescents learn more about stress and how they can use their stress response to their advantage.

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