Stress And Learning: How Stress Diminishes Learning Abilities


In recent studies, researchers have begun to discover the underlying relationship between mind and body and their balanced role in learning and healthy development. The brain is a phenomenal command center, but the body offers a deeper level of integrative understanding in the learning experience. Indeed, learning is an experience that can be fused into the memory bank of our psyche in a holistic and healthy manner. By understanding the expressive needs of each learner and integrating bodily sensation and movement, parents and teachers can bring education and development to another level.

Stress-based Education: Failing to Support the Whole Person

To begin with, our present day model of education fails to support the whole person through intellectual and creative learning. It tends to force the attention of learners by heightening stress responses. No doubt, the thousands of pages assigned to read, weekly assignments, tests, exams, and daily lectures all rolled into one week makes way for a heavy load of stress on students.

Throughout a stressful week, the body undergoes a physical “stress reaction,” involving intensified muscle strength, and increased blood flow and oxygen distribution throughout the body. This state is very much an instinctive process; much like the fight-or-flight response of human and animal survival response. In this state the brain stem and sympathetic nervous system is highly active preparing the body for action. At the same time, there is little activation in the upper regions of the brain involved with emotion and even rational thinking! That being known, why are students being forced to stress out?


Sad enough, individuals are constantly asked to maintain high levels of stress, curbing their creative ability and rational thinking. In a culture geared toward logic, competitive academic standards, and fierce career behavior, our bodies and minds take a lot of abuse. Stress is a health concern. While under stress, adrenalin pumps through the body producing an increased level of cortisol (a stress hormone) to supply energy in the muscles while at the same time depressing the immune system. Unfortunately, while stress reaction appears to improve speed and productivity it is counter-productive to learning and memory.

A Case for Supportive Education

Where the stress-based model of learning tends to fall short, creative and supportive education seems to prosper. While increased adrenalin hampers learning, sensory experiences prove to be conducive to learning. Under stress conditions, or the fight-or-flight mechanism, the individual is prepared to act against a threat. Muscles are tightened, the brain is alert and waiting, and the body is ready to run or defend. In a safe and comfortable environment a persons’ senses are open, letting in more information. Through our senses there is a world to experience. With the information taken in through our senses, our brain creates networks of information that helps us understand the environment and how to grow in it.

Elegant nerve networks develop out of each sensory experience that can be altered with every new experience, but this can only happen in a conducive environment, meaning reduced or controlled stressors. The images and memories woven into the neuronal patterns play a role in remembering and relating to instruction and details, allowing the learner to develop new pathways and adjust their understanding of the world. When a student can relate to information it becomes real and direct, then learning is successful, otherwise a person is just memorizing words, integrating the ideas into their education and their life.

Creating Supportive Education

It is easy to talk about, right. Of course we want to reduce stress. Every person wants to be stress-free. If we want to make a difference in the educational system it is best that we support some of the stress-reducing programs that are already in schools but are dwindling as we speak. Music, art, and physical education are all stress-reducing activities. Surprisingly, many of our schools and educational leaders do not believe these stress-reduction essentials are necessary for students. Here’s the real surprise, they are! If more people are aware of the facts, then these programs along with others can be enjoyed by children, young adults, and perhaps may become a benefit in the work place.

Personal Stress Reduction

Whether the school systems or the work place changes or not, it is important to take matters into your own hands and make sure you get the rest you need to limit your stress. There are various activities that will help. However, some activities are more useful than others. To make that decision, you have to listen to your bodies needs. Sometimes taking a slow walk and enjoying the atmosphere is the most useful. Other times doing some physical activity is best. You just have to listen to the needs of your body. So often we are hyped-up on stress hormones that we literally cannot feel our bodies needs. In order to practice feeling your body I recommend doing this practice each night before you sleep. It can take as little as 3 minutes.

Body Scanning

  1. Lie on your bed with you back down. Make sure you have a comfortable space to rest your arms on your mattress (palms facing up or down). You can have your blankets over you already so you can fall asleep after the body-scan.

  2. Close your eyes and begin to feel each part of your body. Start at your toes and see if you can feel each toe individually, then move up the legs, buttocks, abdomen, back, chest, shoulders, arms, fingers, throat, chin, eyes, top of the head, etc.

  3. Continue feeling each part of the body and noticing any sensations: discomfort, pain, tingling, warmth, cold, etc.

You can practice this at anytime. You might want to take a break from the office or schoolwork for five minutes and just check in with your body. Good-luck in your efforts to live with less stress!


Hannaford, Carla. Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. Salt Lake City, Utah: Great River Books.

Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom

Learning During Stressful Times - NCBI - NIH

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