During our recent COVID-19 adventures, many teachers and parents have developed understandable concerns over student stress and its impact on learning. When is stress beneficial and when is it detrimental?
To understand how duration can turn stress from good to bad, there’s one brain structure and one neurochemical we need to understand. The brain structure of importance is the Hippocampus. In order to form new memories for facts or events, information must pass through the hippocampus making it our ‘gateway to memory’. The neurochemicals of importance are Cortisol and ARC-Proteins. Within the brain, Cortisol is largely neurotoxic and damages neurons while ARC-Proteins serve to mould and reshape the structure of neurons.
Whenever a stress-response is triggered, cortisol floods into the hippocampus and begins damaging neurons. This damage, in turn, triggers the release of ARC-proteins which flood into the hippocampus and ‘battles’ cortisol: essentially, keeping it occupied to avoid further neuron damage.
During short-duration stress, cortisol leaves the hippocampus after a few seconds, minutes, or hours…but ARC-Proteins stick around and begin repairing any damaged neuron, making them stronger than they were before! By first damaging then bolstering the memory gateway, the stress mechanism ensures we form deep, durable memories for short-term stressors.
Conversely, during long-term stress (days, weeks, months), cortisol remains in the hippocampus and stores of ARC-proteins run dry. Once this occurs, cortisol has free reign and begins killing cells within the memory gateway. By first damaging then killing the memory gateway, the stress mechanism ensures we do not form deep, durable memories for long-term stressors.
To help make sense of this process, imagine you stepped in a bear-trap. In this short-term, this is an important event worth learning from. Accordingly, the short-term stress response ensures a deep memory is formed helping you avoid making this same mistake in the future.
However, imagine if you were unable to remove the trap and were stuck for one-week before help arrived. Beyond the immediate event, there is little learning to be done and no reason to create a deep memory for prolonged suffering. As such, the long-term stress response essentially de-activates memory formation until the helpless situation is resolved.
With regards to education, this all means that short-term stressors might be worthwhile. So long as students feel supported and recognized, embracing high expectations, relevant challenge, and academic repercussions may actually boost learning and memory
However, when students undergo long-term stressors (whether personal or academic), then we can expect memory to suffer significantly. It is for this reason that much trauma informed education focuses heavily on relationships and stress reduction. Until school is understood as a safe place and teachers are recognized as reliable influences, very little (if any) classroom learning will occur.
To understand how intensity can turn stress from good to bad, there’s a different brain structure and neurochemical we need to understand. The brain structure is the Prefrontal Cortex: a region linked to attentional orientation, memory maintenance, and focused thinking. The neurochemical is Norepinephrine: a hormone linked to communication within the brain.
During moderate-intensity stressors, a nice amount of norepinephrine floods into the prefrontal cortex thereby upregulating its function: attention sharpens, working memory expands, and focused thinking enhances.
However, during high-intensity stressors, too much norepinephrine floods into the prefrontal cortex. This surge reverses the function of this hormone. Rather than upregulating function, norepinephrine begins to act like a wet blanket, essentially cutting off communication between the Prefrontal Cortex and the rest of the brain. This, in turn, greatly impairs attention, working memory, and focused thought.
Whereas this might prove a nightmare in the classroom (mind-blanks, mind-wipes, and behavioural reactivity), it serves a strong biological purpose. Imagine if a rabid bear came running at you right now: rather than wasting time considering an effective response, norepinephrine allows for your far faster, far more reactive, and far more death-averse body to take control until the threat subsides.
This is the reason why so many primary stress-regulation techniques directly target the body. Deep breathing, exercise, muscle tension and release: these techniques aim to burn off excess cortisol and norepinephrine within the body thereby allowing for the reactivation of focused thinking.
To understand this, we must differentiate between Emotions and Feelings. Emotions are physical sensation within the body driven by chemical messengers – things like a racing heart, tingling skin, a jumpy tummy. Feelings, on the other hand, are a mental interpretation of these emotions.
Seeing as the human body can only respond to a limited number of chemicals, the number of emotions we have is limited (joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust). However, seeing as there’s no limit to the ways in which we can interpret physical sensations, the number of feelings we can have is infinite (passion, confidence, jealousy, etc.). Importantly, whenever we ‘select’ a feeling, this choice can feed-back to the brain and body and change the chemicals accordingly.
This all matters because stress is a feeling, not an emotion. This means stress (and all the pros/cons that go with it) is by-and-large a choice. Beyond the immediate threat response, most of the stress response is activated after an individual interprets a particular event, circumstance, or emotion as stressful.
This is the reason why so many secondary stress-regulation techniques target the mind. Meditation, re-framing, perspective: these techniques aim to change how an individual interprets a situation thereby shutting down the feed-back mechanism and abating the stress response before it begins.
So now then…
Although the basic mechanism of stress never changes, duration, intensity, and interpretation can all change the impact of a stressor. In the short-term, physical interventions which target the body are arguably the strongest methods to deal with negative stress response. However, in the long-term, mental and social interventions which target perspective and social interactions are arguably the strongest methods for stress reduction.