Stress Effects on Focus and Learning

Focus, Memory and Learning

Stress has a specific effect on both focus and memory. Focus and memory are the beginning steps to studying and learning. Your body functions either in growth function or protection function. When your body is responding to_59620534_jex_1376668_de27-1 danger, your growth function shuts down as protection function takes over making focus and memory difficult.

It is the same for all mammals. If you have ever had a pet cat ready to deliver kittens, you may have experienced this: although you’ve made a comfortable little bed on the floor for your cat to have her kittens, you come home to find she is having her kittens on your couch. You gently lift the cat off the couch to the floor and labor stops for anywhere from a few hours to half a day.  The perception of danger provokes fear, and the nervous system switches from growth function to protection function until it perceives the danger has past.

Your Body on Stress

The protection function is a complex system designed for survival. When a danger is perceived, whether it is real or imagined, the body responds in a way to adapt and survive the danger. Viewing a scary movie or truly experiencing a life threatening event evokes the same stress response. The emotion part of your brain is deep inside the center of your brain. When you experience a stressful event this part of your brain secretes a chemical that stimulates your pituitary gland also deep in the center of your brain. Your pituitary gland secretes yet another chemical that enters your bloodstream. It enters the bloodstream so it can trigger your adrenal glands. Adrenal glands are like a part of your brain that fell off your head and landed on your kidneys. Although they lie far from your brain adrenal glands work hand-in-hand with your brain. When the adrenals are stimulated they dump cortisol into your bloodstream.

When cortisol reaches the digestive organs it decreases blood flow to the organs by constricting the blood vessels.  The body knows digestion is not important in a time of high stress that may threaten survival.  The opposite happens in the brain and muscles where cortisol causes blood vessels to enlarge to increase the flow to these organs that we need to decide whether to fight or run.

Your Brain on Stress

The increased blood to the brain is routed to the part of the brain, the brain stem, where fight or flight situations are better handled, using reflex behaviors. Constriction of the vessels to the front of the brain suppresses logic and reasoning, since slower well thought out responses are not best suited for stressful situations. The fear of taking tests or exams often causes this type of fight or flight stress, suppressing the front of the brain, resulting in loss of logic and reasoning, the very brain function necessary to answer test questions correctly.

Memory is such an important part of learning and survival that you’re set up with an elaborate and complex memory system. The part of your brain that responds to events with emotion is tied into the part of your brain that remembers things. The emotion and memory parts of your brain are also deep inside the center of your brain. Again emotion and memory work together. The part of your brain that has a big response to the stress hormone cortisol is the memory part of your brain. The part of your brain involved in remembering is much like two slices of cantaloupe covered in push-pins. The push-pins are receptors sensitive to cortisol.

A Little Stress Motivates, More Stress Complicates, A Lot of Stress Deteriorates

When you first experience a stressor, short bursts of cortisol will improve memory and learning. But a constant barrage of cortisol has a destructive effect on your memory center. Luckily your body has a way to protect itself from too much long term cortisol in the memory centers. When you move your body, yes I mean exercise; you produce a type of brain fertilizer called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor that protects the memory center from too much cortisol. But if you persist on being stressed the fertilizer can be overwhelmed and rendered useless, then stress will cause your memory to deteriorate.

Remember that what you experience in front of your eyes has the same effect on your body as what you experience behind your eyes. When we are experiencing anger, fear, anxiety, hostility, hopelessness, or emotional pressure, or even just thinking about or remembering any negative emotion, cells cannot stay healthy in the growth mode because they go to protection mode. The body is designed to be in the protection mode for very short periods of time and growth mode most of the time.  The body cannot work toward growth when it’s in protection mode, therefore growth and repair responses are suppressed or altered when protection mode is being experienced. Over prolonged periods of time this causes abnormal cell growth and all kinds of health problems.

What my patients have taught me: “When you shine light on a stressful thought, it loses power”

By Dr. Cynthia Horner