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Stress and Education
Introduction and Overview
This series of four articles explores the psychology and biology
of stress, with a special focus on the kinds of stress that negatively
affect educational settings. Young people face a wide range of
potential stressors—school being one of these.
When we confront a challenge that portends danger or promises
opportunity, our brain can normally draw on its considerable problem
solving capabilities to develop a carefully considered effective
response. Some challenges require a rapid response that uses a lot of
energy however, and this article will focus principally on how we
respond to them.
We have an innate rapid response system for such imminent dangers and
opportunities. You are probably familiar with the terms “fight, freeze,
or flight” as response possibilities when your brain senses a possible
life-threatening problem situation. In 1975 pioneer researcher Hans
Selye called this the stress response
The stress response evolved to set priorities on the expenditure of
body/brain energy when confronting an extraordinary imminent challenge.
The stress response:
- Temporarily increases energy flow to the body/brain systems that
enhance an assertive response to the current challenge, such as our
circulation, respiration, attention, and motor systems, and
- Temporarily decreases energy flow to the systems that aren't
necessary for a rapid assertive response to the current challenge, such
as our digestion, immune, and sexual arousal systems.
A good example of what occurs biologically in a stress response is the
rush of adrenaline that prepares our body for physical response to the
actual or potential attack. A somewhat slower release of cortisol
increases glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, enhances our brain's use
of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair
tissues. We’ll expand on this later.
We tend to think of stress in negative terms, but the response can
certainly be positive. For example, an appropriate level of stress can
help a person do better on a test or in an athletic performance. This
type of stress response is of limited duration—it is not chronic.
Chronic stress is physically and mentally debilitating because it uses
a short-term high-energy response system geared to physical danger and
opportunity to deal with a problem that’s typically doesn’t portend
physical injury. For example, a teacher getting stressed out for days
on end because of classroom misbehavior is counterproductive. Better to
engage your problem solving capabilities in creating a classroom
environment that reduces misbehavior.
Our lives are full of continuing challenges that are not life
threatening, and that thus should activate our brain’s problem solving
rather than stress response systems. For example, many adults feel
continually stressed by commuting traffic, workplace and family
problems, and financial needs. Ask yourself: What’s the point of
tensing up your shoulder muscles for several days because your credit
card is overdrawn? Does muscle tension solve the problem?
Chronic Stress and Education
Consider a child growing up in poverty and in a home
situation in which the caregivers are stressed by their inability to
meet the needs of their children. They may have a stressful (or no)
job, be abusive, excessively use alcohol and/or other drugs, and so on.
The child may face additional stressors such as neighborhood gangs, a
high local crime rate, inadequate health care, and school problems.
Many children living in such an environment develop chronic stress that
affects their general health, learning, and ability to cope with
situations they routinely encounter. This series of the IAE Newsletter
will focus on:
Biochemistry of Stress Response
- How stress—especially chronic stress—affects informal and formal
- How schooling is especially stressful for some students. We’ll
focus specifically on our math education system. It serves as a good
area to study because many students find math education particularly
The biochemical stress responses of adrenaline release and cortisol
production are relatively well understood by scientists.
- Adrenaline—this hormone increases the heart rate and force of
heart contractions, facilitates blood flow to the muscles and brain,
causes relaxation of smooth muscles, helps with conversion of glycogen
to glucose in the liver, and other functions.
- Noradrenaline—this hormone has strong vasoconstrictive effects,
thus increasing blood pressure.
When we sense a potentially stressful challenge, our brain’s
hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormones, which stimulate
the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, in turn, produces
corticotropin hormones, which stimulate the adrenal glands to produce
and secrete corticosteroid hormones.
Stressors and the Stress Response
A stressor is anything that triggers a stress response
People often use the word stress in place of the word stressor. The
commonly heard statements such as “I feel stressed” and “I am stressed
out” are indicators that the speaker is experiencing a stress response.
Such statements do not give an indication of the stressors leading to
the stress response.
Indeed, it can often be difficult to match a particular stressor with a
particular set of results. A student arriving at school in the morning
may feel stress from the shouting match her parents had the previous
evening, being hassled about getting ready to leave for school on time,
an unpleasant interaction with a bully on the school bus, and a test
scheduled for second period. The combination of these stressors might
lead her to do poorly on the test.
Three general categories of stressors (stress) produce the same stress
Distress occurs when internal and external sensors perceive actual or
potentially immediate threats to life and limb.
- Internal sensory examples include pain that might be a heart
attack, partial paralysis that might come from a stroke, or a sudden
- Our five external sensory systems can bring us information about
immediate threats—be they the smell of something burning in one’s
house, the siren of an ambulance, or a nearby bolt of lightning.
You have undoubtedly heard the statement, “Sticks and stones will break
my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The trouble with this
statement is that abusive or inflammatory words can trigger a stress
response. Indeed, you may well find that television and other ads
designed to sell you products are stressful, perhaps making you feel
inadequate because you do not have the preffered products.
Identified by Conscious
or Subconscious Thinking
Thinking about a potentially stressful situation that might occur in
the future can produce a stress response. “I didn’t have time to do the
required reading for my history class. I am afraid the teacher will
call on me in class. I will be standing there with everybody looking at
me, ready to laugh if I give a wrong answer.” “I am worried that I will
do poorly on the math test next week. So much depends on it!” “I am
afraid that my friend will want the two of us to go to a movie this
weekend. I just don’t have enough money for a ticket and refreshments,
and I don’t know how to handle this situation.”
The term eustress (good stress) was first used by endocrinologist Hans
Selye in 1975, when he published a model dividing stress into two major
categories: eustress and distress. Eustress is the positive form of
stress, often related to desirable events in a person's life. Examples
include getting married, getting a new job or a job promotion that you
are seeking, and doing well in a game, sporting, or other completion.
Eustress and distress both produce the same human stress response
because all your brain knows is that you’re confronting a challenge.
For example getting a job (eustress) and getting fired from a job
(distress) create basically the same problem: What do I do now to
The Yerkes–Dodson law is an empirical relationship between arousal and
performance, originally developed in 1908 by psychologists, Robert M.
Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law dictates that performance
increases with physiological or mental stress response arousal, but
only up to a point. See the diagram below. When the intensity of the
stress response becomes too high, performance decreases.
Upside-down U-shaped performance
versus stress curve.
Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress
Effects on the
The short-term rapid stress response facilitating fight or fight can
save your life. However, chronic stress is both physically and mentally
damaging. In brief summary, this is because the stress response shuts
down many bodily activities that are not essential to facing the
For example, the normal functioning of your immune system, digestive
system, and reproductive system are a low priority as you rapidly run
to and climb a tree to escape from a pack of hyenas. If these
periodically shut down for a short period and then resume normal
functioning levels, no damage results. But extended shutdowns of these
systems will obviously cause problems:
Quoting from WebMD (n.d.): Chronic stress can affect your:
Immune system. Constant stress can make
you more susceptible to infection and other illnesses.
Heart. Stress is linked to high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat
(arrhythmia), blood clots, and hardening of the arteries
(atherosclerosis). It's also linked to coronary artery disease, heart
attack, and heart failure.
Muscles. Constant tension from stress can lead to neck, shoulder, and
low back pain. Stress may make rheumatoid arthritis worse.
Effects on the
We have long known that too high a stress level (as in the right side
of the U-shaped stress response curve discussed above) and/or chronic
stress are detrimental to one’s brain. As indicated earlier, the stress
response evolved to provide an innate rapid assertive response to
imminent physical threats and opportunities. Thus, if I’m crossing a
street and notice a rapidly approaching car, the only sensible thing to
do is to quickly determine which direction to run to avoid getting hit.
What I don’t need to know is who is driving the car, what brand it is,
and similar kinds of useless information in this situation. So just as
it’s a good idea to shut down our digestive and immune systems when
confronted by a stressful challenge, it’s also important to shut down
our much slower reflective thinking and problem solving systems. A
brain structure called the hippocampus is the avenue to memory and
So under intense stress, we tend to respond innately, emotionally, and
quickly. That’s why we tend to go through life with a litany of regrets
and apologies for doing and saying things that we retrospectively
realize were stupid.
No negative long-term effects result from periodic short term shut
downs of our rational problem solving system, but chronic shutdowns
will eventually cause serious problems with the system. For more than
25 years we have know that chronic stress impairs hippocampal function
- Neuronal atrophy and destruction of neurons,
- Decreased short term memory, and
- Decreased contextual memory.
More recent research is giving us a better understanding of what is
actually happening in the hippocampus. Quoting from Your Amazing Brain
The cortisol released in stress travels
into the brain and binds to the receptors inside many neurons (in the
cytoplasm). Through a cascade of reactions, this causes neurons to
admit more calcium through channels in their membrane.
In the short-term, cortisol presumably helps the brain to cope with the
life-threatening situation. However,
if neurons become over-loaded with calcium they fire too frequently and
die—they are literally excited to death.
Here is a related tidbit that you may find interesting. In recent
years, research has shown that our brains produce new neurons,
especially in the hippocampus. This growth is important to learning and
memory. Joe Hibert’s research lab has shown that the cortisol component
of the stress response dramatically decreases the rate new brain cells
are formed (Hibert, n.d.) However, selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)
antidepressants can counter
this decrease and promote new neuron growth in the hippocampus.
The literature on various causes of stress and how to reduce chronic
stress is vast. Stress reduction can be facilitated by appropriate
exercise, diet, relaxation techniques, and meditation.
Education about stress and coping mechanisms can be built into our
educational system. Doing so can add to the physical and cognitive
health of students and help improve our educational system. We’ll
explore these in three subsequent articles in this series.
Hibert, Joe (n.d.). Cambridge Neuroscience.
Retrieved 4/21/2011 from http://www.neuroscience.cam.ac.uk/directory/profile.php?jh24.
WebM (n.d.). Stress management health center.
Retrieved 4/21 2011 from: http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-effects-of-stress.
Yerkes-Dobson Law (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved
4/19/2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law.
Your Amazing Brain (n.d). Stress: Your brain and
body. Retrieved 4/21/2011 from http://www.youramazingbrain.org.uk/brainchanges/stressbrain.htm.
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