By Jane Bluestein, Ph.D.
A few things to remember about the impact of stress on the brain, and on our students’ ability to function effectively— academically and behaviorally— in a learning environment:
- Students vary in sensitivity to environmental stimuli: sights, sounds, odors, physical sensations, as well as the emotional energy in the classroom and the teacher’s emotional state.
- The emotional climate in the classroom can have a strong impact on the degree to which factual information can be processed, retained and recalled.
- Emotion is necessary for learning. Emotional impact makes memories clear and long-lasting.
- Context is a factor. Emotions experienced in one setting (with regard to a particular class, subject area, classroom activity—like a test—or a particular teacher, for example) tend to be carried to similar settings and situations.
- When our “shields” are up, other systems may be down (inaccessible, closed channels, etc.)
- Our interpretation of events creates the reaction in our brain.
- When the brain perceives an experience as positive, pleasantly exciting and fun, it releases certain chemicals that assist learning and recall.
- When input is experienced as negative or threatening, the chemicals that are released can have a negative affect on learning and retention.
- Stress reactions vary from student to student: What’s challenging and curiosity-provoking to one student can trigger paralyzing fear in another.
- Anxiety responses can include physical reactions, such as sweating, dry mouth, shallow breathing, headache, pounding pulse, intestinal distress, weakness, incoordination, or “freezing” or “going blank.”
- Anxiety can also provoke behavioral reactions such as panic, irritability, depression, agitation, worry, inattention, forgetfulness, distractibility, not to mention disruptive and sometimes hurtful outbursts.
- Downshifting: Neurological “shift” when under perceived threat to survival centers in brain.
- Stress changes chemical and electrical activity in the brain.
- Stress hormones affect the hippocampus, inhibiting the growth of new dendrites (or actually causing dendritic branches to die off), leading to decreased memory and learning.
- Excess cortisol (a chemical released under trauma and stress) leads to hippocampal damage, and can result in memory lapses, anxiety and difficulty regulating attention and emotional outbursts in a classroom setting. (Long-term effects can impact the immune system, blood pressure and protein metabolism.)
- Students under stress are less able to “hear” what is being said to them or asked of them, and are likely to misunderstand or distort what they do receive. The resulting downshifted, or survival behaviors can result in additional anger, punishment, failure or alienation, a cycle of reactions that compounds the problem. For many students, it’s just easier to shut down and drop out.
The brain’s main job is prioritizing information relevant to our survival. Anything that suggests the possibility of danger, whether real or imagined, becomes a higher priority than anything else that is going on at that moment. This data is processed first, shifting our attention from cognitive processes down to the faster-acting limbic system, while more complex cerebral operations shut down. Survival always overrides problem-solving, analyzing, remembering, pattern-detection and other rational processes.
Excerpted and adapted from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. © 2001, Health Communications, Inc, Deerfield Beach, FL.