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Stress: Its Neurological Implication On Learning

Standardized tests, bullying, grades, peer pressure. The list could go on and on when it comes to things that cause stress in a student’s life. What is happening to the brain neurologically when it’s dealing with stress and how does this affect memory and learning?

Acute and Chronic Stress

Acute stress, known as “fight or flight,” is for immediate threats and once the threat passes the body returns to its natural state, homeostasis. A study conducted by the University of California – Berkeley, stated that acute stress “primes the brain for improved performance” (Sanders, 2013).

Epinephrine and norepinephrine are stress hormones that are produced during acute stress. They also help you think quickly and move fast in an emergency. This is known as eustress (good stress).

Distress (bad stress) on the other hand, is stress that is prolonged, also called chronic stress. During both eustress and distress, the hormone that is produced is cortisol. However, because distress is prolonged, the cortisol builds up in the body causing several health problems.

What is Happening during the Initiation of the Stress Response?

When the brain perceives there is danger, the body takes action. The amygdala, through the hypothalamus, sends out an alarm to the entire body that it needs to prepare for “flight or fight.” Epinephrine and norepinephrine trigger the stress response to act and immediately affects the cardiovascular, endocrine, respiratory, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems.

Your heart rate increases, oxygen rises and is pumped to your muscles, and your senses become much more alert as your body prepares to respond. The digestive, reproductive and immune systems are not needed, so they shut down.

How Emotion Affects Retention Rates

Whether the brain pays attention to new information is strongly influenced by the emotion associated with it. Remember, the brain is designed for survival and the thalamus and amygdala ensure that we react quickly to emotionally relevant information (Wolfe, 2010). We remember emotional events much more vividly than other events because of our stress response. Teachers should try and put some “emotional hook” into every lesson. Students will have a much better chance of retaining this information.

Memory and the Hippocampus

Learning occurs when neurons repeatedly activate across their synapses. But if there is too much cortisol in the system, memory is impeded (University of California-Irvine, 2008).

“In the classroom, a student can perceive even a mild stressor to be threatening, initiating the stress response and lessening his or her ability to perform” (Wolfe, pg. 141, 2010).

When a person experiences prolonged stress, the brain repeats the same responses which cause these neural pathways  to become stronger. Prolonged stress also “short-circuits other neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex” (Levy, 2014). Creativity, memory, and critical thinking are essential for successful learning, and these executive functions are hindered because of prolonged stress (Levy, 2014).


Our stress response needs to be controlled so chronic stress doesn’t take over and destroy our health. Teachers in particular need to understand how stress can affect a student’s learning and memory.


Lou Whitaker, Ed. D.

Brain Junkie

About the Author: Dr. Lou E. Whitaker has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University, a Masters in Administration from National-Louis University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Having over 35 years of experience in education, she has been a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and served as the Associate Superintendent for Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She is currently an Educational Consultant for Open Minds Enterprises, EdCenter, Global Center for College & Career Readiness, as well as a consultant for MeTEOR Education.

Chosen as one of Dr. Pat Wolfe’s Brainy Bunch Members, she has been involved with Dr. Wolfe’s continuous study of the human brain. The Brainy Bunch is a group of educators and health professionals who are passionate about brain development and its impact on learning. On a yearly basis, the group invites two outstanding neuroscientists to meet with them and discuss their latest research developments. Then this renowned group of educators, led by Dr. Wolfe, translate neurological research into classroom practice. Dr. Whitaker understands the importance of keeping abreast of what is going on in neuroscience as well as understanding the importance of data-driven best practice research. These are essential for making a positive impact on our students’ lives.


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