How Stress Affects the Brain During Learning

A fight or flight reaction may be useful in some situations, but it is highly detrimental in the classroom. Whether anxiety stems from test taking or from an unstable home environment, the brains of students experiencing high levels of stress look different than those who are not — and those brains behave differently, too. In this article, we’ll take a look at the neural and hormonal responses that underpin a student’s stress response, and make a few suggestions for continuing to teach through the challenges it presents.

What Happens to the Brain During a Stress Response

The body and the brain respond to stress with a complex cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters. When a child’s senses perceive danger, their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system releases steroid hormones (glucocorticoids). This includes the primary stress hormone, cortisol, which has a direct effect on the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune system and skin. The HPA also stimulates the release of catecholamine neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline), which activates the amygdala, which in turn triggers a fearful response. The brain then releases neuropeptide S, which increases alertness and feelings of anxiety.

How Stress Inhibits a Brain’s Ability to Learn

Together, the HPA system will keep a child’s stimulated and ready to run. But while this may be good for truly life or death situations, this stress response makes learning difficult, as the stimulated senses are not those associated with deep learning. Think about it this way: would you be able to memorize the times tables when you were being chased by a bear? Of course not. But while this may be obvious, the reasons why this is the case is more complex than you might expect.

The Hippocampus and Memory Storage

In the short term, acute stress prevents memory storage. According to a 2008 study by University of California Irvine researchers, when cortisol reaches the hippocampus, the brain’s primary structure for consolidating information from short term into long term memory, the structure’s dendritic spines disintegrate rapidly. That’s important, because dendritic spines are the protrusions that branch off of neurons. Learning and memory storage happens effectively when neurons are repeatedly activated across their synapses — a process that effectively tells the brain that a stimulus, behavior or habit is important to retain. When dendritic spines degrade, the brain’s ability to identify and store important information is significantly inhibited.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Executive Function

Fortunately, dendritic spines can grow back (though in the long term, their loss may actually shrink the hippocampus). However, as the team at This American Life explored in their comprehensive 2012 episode, Back to School, when a child experiences prolonged stress, their brain repeats the same responses again and again, thus strengthening the neural pathways that control the stress and fear responses. In essence, the brain is learning to stay stressed or to escalate to a stress response quickly. This is like any type of learning; for example, a brain that is repeatedly taught to add 2 plus 2 will go from a convoluted to a more streamlined and finally an instant thought process.

And it’s not just that this heightened stress reaction is a problem in itself; it’s that it short circuits other neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex. Specifically, executive functions like self-control, impulse control, memory, and reasoning — skills that are essential to successful learning. Some studies indicate that cortisol even has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells so that they actively will inhibit the forming of new connections in the prefrontal cortex, while hardening pathways that run between the amygdala and the hippocampus.

Identifying At-Risk Youth

Both acute and chronic stress are bad for students of any age, but the effects are particularly dangerous in early development. As the This American Life episode explores in-depth, students that live below the poverty line, are the victims of neglect or abuse, or have a parent with a history of mental illness or substance abuse are far more likely to struggle with attention and self-control. Of course, nothing is certain, and it is possible for, say, an impoverished student with present parents to thrive. But each one of these factors does indicate a significant risk and the need for early interventions.

What Educators Can Do

Teach Grit
According to economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman, who was interviewed for the This American Life episode, cognitive skills are set around age 10. However:

“Social skills, personality traits, the ability to stay on task– these can be taught. And these can be taught at later ages. And there’s a malleability there that actually offers a new perspective on social policy– how social policy might redirect itself towards those more malleable soft skills.”

If you’re tapped into education circles, this should remind you of two trendy buzzwords du jour: resilience and grit. Indeed, rewiring the brain, just like persevering through skill mastery, requires determination, continual effort and pushing through perceived failures. As we discussed recently in our article on this subject, educators can teach this skill by creating lesson plans on grit and exploring the concept explicitly. However, for the most at-risk youth, individual coaching outside of the classroom will prove most effective, both in terms of teaching grit directly and for teaching subject specific concepts.

Reduce Anxiety in the Classroom
There are numerous actions teachers can take to reduce anxiety in the classroom. These include:

  1. Designating a safe place for at-risk children. Outside of mentoring, tutoring, and coaching, children should have a designated safe adult in the classroom, whether that’s the classroom teacher, the school psychologist or the school nurse. This person should be a calming and empathetic presence, equipped with coping strategies individualized to the given student.
  2. Encourage self-awareness. In addition to discussing grit, it can also be useful to develop a lesson plan that explores the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety so that students can recognize the signs in themselves and fellow students and offer a helping hand.
  3. Teach time management. Students will have less stress in their lives when they feel organized and like they are on top of their assignments. This is especially important if you also opt to provide flexible due dates in, say, the form of packets that can be completed as students go. Combined, these two strategies will keep students motivated and on top of their work without feeling anxiety about due dates.
  4. Give As for effort. Or if not an A, then at least make sure you’re adding extra points in for a nice, determined effort, even when the ultimate answer is wrong. This will encourage students to take risks and persevere, rather than feeling like they’ll only “win” if they’re perfect.
  5. Teach mindfulness and meditation. Today’s schooling system puts a heavy emphasis on outcome-based learning, but just as important is staying in touch with one’s emotions. Setting aside time to, for example, have students meditate before starting an exam, will not only help reduce anxiety in the present, but will also teach coping strategies for the long term.
  6. Provide exemptions for especially anxiety-inducing activities. To a shy student, answering a question on the board or reading in front of their classmates may be an insurmountable task. It may be an unnecessary one too, as long as they are still participating socially with other students in some way and progressing at grade level in a one-on-one setting.

How Do You Reduce Anxiety in the Classroom?

If we ever want to close the achievement gap, understanding the effects of stress on the brain is of the utmost importance. Let us know your best anxiety reducing strategies in the comments below or on Twitter through @edudemic!


  1. Tris25

    October 18, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Great article but you are leaving out the genetic predisposition inherent in students with ADHD/ADD and LD–lower dopamine and serotonin levels to begin with. Also, these students develop “stress responses” inside the classroom itself. It would be wonderful if you could explore how teachers could help prevent these stress responses from being created in the early years. Many teachers ridicule kids who don’t hear directions clearly or miss assignments due to attention/difficulty processing. Many kids with LD live in fear that they will miss something, do something wrong — this stress compounds their learning comprehension in school and makes their problems worse. By the time these kids reach high school, they are at high risk for developing insomnia, depression/anxiety disorders, addictions that ease their anxieties, self-harming and rebelious behavior. It is important for teachers to be knowledgble about learning disabilities so that they do not contribute to wiring these stress responses in a child’s brain.

    • Leah Levy

      October 20, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      Great point! Having worked closely with LD-students one-on-one for years, I’ve seen what you describe all too often. Learning disabilities are a big and important topic, and one we hope to cover soon. Thanks for your comment!

    • Kashya

      October 25, 2014 at 9:38 am

      ADHD is a concern (I have it) but they’re are also kids who have other learning challenges, including stressful or traumatic home lives and these kids often get lumped into the ADHD label because the symptoms are so similar.

      • Leah Levy

        October 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm

        All too true, Kashya. ADHD is a very real and important condition, but it is all too often overdiagnosed, which ultimately misses the point and is damaging to everyone in the classroom.

    • LD Spec VA.

      October 28, 2014 at 4:09 pm

      I could not agree more. As an LD Specialist/Reading Specialist, I see so many students that have such little reserves by the time they get to high school. Learning is a just seen as another stress and emotional situation to try and cope with while coping with family issues. I am fortunate that at my high school many general education teachers are fair about due dates and willing to work with my students. I am thankful for those teachers!

      • Leah Levy

        October 30, 2014 at 7:51 am

        “I see so many students that have such little reserves by the time they get to high school.” That’s so sad to hear, and yet such a common experience. Imagine what would happen if the classroom was a place of relief and self-actualization instead!