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Happy Thoughts May Help Postdocs Handle Stress

Thinking positively can do more than bring a transient smile to your face. Postdocs who experience high levels of positive emotions are less likely to suffer from stress-associated anxiety or depression than other postdocs are, according to a recent study of 200 University of Texas (UT), Austin, postdoctoral fellows, 79% of whom work in the sciences. One apparent link between positive thoughts and reduced anxiety and depression is resilience: More positive emotion was correlated with high resilience, which in turn was linked to fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“The premise is that positive emotions open us up and help people use a broader range of coping strategies,” says UT Austin's Mary Steinhardt, senior author of the paper published 24 June in the journal Stress and Health. “It might not matter as much at low stress, where people can handle it, but at high stress, you want to be able to adapt to adversity.”

We realized that there’s quite a need for attention among the postdocs.

—Christian Gloria
Mary Steinhardt

Mary Steinhardt

Courtesy of the University of Texas

Specific coping strategies for dealing with stress appear to intermediate the relationship between positive emotion and resilience. Good coping strategies, such as planning for difficult situations and seeking social support, enforce the relationship, while bad coping strategies, such as denial and substance abuse, detract from it. Among the postdocs studied, those who were married or had kids were less likely to use bad coping methods, perhaps because they have learned that these approaches are less likely to be effective—which adds an interesting twist to the ongoing debate about when it is best to have children during a scientific career. In addition, women were more likely to use good coping strategies, which may offer them an advantage when dealing with the stresses of research life.

While the data come from one-time survey responses and therefore cannot be used to determine causal relationships between the various experiences and traits that were measured, the authors believe that much of the effect starts with positivity. “When we suggest that people need more positive emotions in their lives, I know it sounds kind of frou-frou, but it’s actually a very simple practice,” explains Christian Gloria of Hawaii Pacific University in Kaneohe, the first author of the study. “It could be something as simple as watching a funny TV show or going out for a walk or jog. These little things really add up.”

The correlations between positive emotions, coping strategies, resilience, stress, anxiety, and depression have been studied in other populations, but the authors thought it was important to reach out to the stressed-out postdocs they saw every day. “We realized that there’s quite a need for attention among the postdocs,” Gloria says. “It’s really ironic because these are the people studying all types of things, but there’s very little study of their lives and their stresses.”

Christian Gloria

Christian Gloria

Courtesy of Christian Gloria

The authors went beyond providing this much-needed research about the postdoc population and provided feedback and training for the study participants. Steinhardt, who works with postdocs in her role as the university’s faculty ombudswoman, offered personalized reports summarizing each participant’s results to help them identify areas for improvement and ran a series of training sessions to teach the postdocs about the ideas underlying her work, including positive thinking, resilience, coping mechanisms, and the effects that stress can have on health.

Gloria emphasizes the key role that adviser choice can play in determining positive emotions. “It’s really important for postdocs to understand what it is they’re looking for, what kind of person they are, and what kind of support they need, and make sure that’s a good match with their supervisor,” he says.

“Stress is inevitable, especially in the postdoc world,” he continues. “Our main focus is that you manage those problems, so by the next day you’re not still marinating in those stresses.”