THE BLOG

What Parents Need to Know About Stress and Learning

06/18/2013 11:06 am ET | Updated Aug 18, 2013

Retention, comprehension and potential to learn are all undermined by stress and anxiety. We are all familiar with the term "test anxiety," and have all experienced that feeling of not being able to concentrate because of stress.

How stress affects brain performance

Stress hormones affect our memory and cognition. When we get upset, our cortisol levels elevate in the blood, and the part of our brain in which learning and memory resides -- the hippocampus -- starts dumping neurons as a reaction to stress. By getting smaller, our hippocampus negatively impacts our memory and learning capacity. Therefore, increases in stress hormones can cause a range of deleterious cognitive and physical symptoms.

When the brain is relaxed, more blood goes to the prefrontal cortex and we can use more of our mental reserves. The prefrontal cortex is where our critical and abstract thinking lives, and it is typically the captain of our ship; however, under stress, the mental activity of the prefrontal cortex slows down and the amygdala, where our fight-or-flight response exists, gets larger and takes over our mental operations. Therefore, when the brain is stressed, we are thinking more emotionally and less critically. As a result, our decision-making is colored by our fight-or-flight response. Even a bad night's sleep can stress the body enough to raise cortisol levels in our blood. So, a child who is worried or not sleeping well, or a business man who is about to close a deal, are both at a disadvantage when compared to their counterparts who have had a good night's sleep and have a full-functioning prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala.

The importance of stress management

When stress is managed through relaxation techniques, the activity of our brain cells use frequencies similar to that of a radio station, thus, information can be broadcasted through these particular frequencies. Moments of inspiration, creativity and "a-ha!" insights often occur in such states of relaxation. These moments allow students to extend beyond their ordinary tendencies and aptitude. This state has been called a relaxed-alert or alpha state.

Stress and learning

Everything we learn, everything we read, everything we do, everything we understand and everything we experience counts on the hippocampus to function correctly. When the body endures ongoing stress, cortisol affects the rate at which neurons are either added or subtracted from the hippocampus. This can be a tremendous assault on learning. When the neurons are attacked by cortisol, the hippocampus loses neurons and is reduced in size. Because cortisol enlarges the amygdala while it shrinks the hippocampus, our emotions become stimulated and our capacity to gather information is inhibited. Because the amygdala overrides the prefrontal cortex, stress places our critical thinking at risk. This is all part of the fight-or-flight syndrome where our reactive need for survival overrides our capacity to critically think. Also, elevated stress levels can damage our motor abilities.

As stress enlarges the amygdala and shrinks the hippocampus, this impairs our ability to learn, store information, access memory, focus and think critically and creatively. This is called cognitive dysfunction. Loss of sleep, anxiety and worry can all elevate cortisol levels and cause the same syndrome to occur. Short-term memory loss in many cases is nothing more than a reaction to stress, as is a challenged immune system. You may have recognized that some of these symptoms are prevalent in Alzheimer's disease, where elevated cortisol levels have been found. In fact, when Alzheimer's patients are given a stable, small dose of cortisol, they show cognitive impairment. Even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients exhibit a stress profile, including a reduced hippocampal volume.

Stress management tools

So, what can we do to help our children and ourselves manage stress? There are simple tools that can help us to recognize, acknowledge, and remediate the damage done to our bodies from stress.

These stress-management tools include:

1. Exercise
2. Meditation
3. Yoga - Chi-Gong
4. Talk therapy
5. Psychotherapy and counseling

If we don't confront the effect of stress on our lives, neither we nor our children will be as healthy as we could be or as happy as we should be to fill our potential. All it takes is a little time in instead of time out.