The Effects of Stress

The effects of stress can have serious consequences on your health and your ability to learn.

In Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head

, neurophysiologist and educator Carla Hannaford writes that “emotions meet at the intersection of body and mind.” Whenever we feel a particular emotion—whether positive or negative—it releases a cascade of chemicals throughout our bodies that not only affect our health but also our ability to learn.

In other words, our emotions, immune system, memory and capacity for learning are directly linked together.

The Effects of Positive and Negative Emotions

Hannaford explains that an experience is just an event to our minds and bodies; it is how we feel about that event that determines its effect upon us. Feeling optimistic, hopeful and confident about our ability to surmount the challenges in our lives increases our overall health, vitality and ability to learn. In fact scientists have found that optimism is a better predictor of college success than either SAT scores or high school grades.

On the other hand, emotions like anxiety, fear and anger can seriously damage our health and our ability to learn.

An article in The Newsletter of the Institute of HeartMath (Number 1, 2002) states that:

Anxiety creates a kind of "noise" or "mental static" in the brain that blocks our ability to retrieve what's stored in memory and also greatly impairs our ability to comprehend and reason.

Additional research has shown that chronic anger is a stronger predictor of dying young than any other risk factor—including smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And anger is particularly lethal for men who already have heart disease. (In contrast, feelings of anxiety and fear are particularly lethal for women who have heart disease.)

How Does Stress Affect Your Health?

All of this comes down to stress, which can be defined as our reaction to a perceived threat. When we feel threatened, our body puts us into survival mode by releasing such chemicals as cortisol and adrenaline.

Cortisol increases blood sugar levels to prepare our muscles to either fight or take flight. To keep us from losing too many fluids if our bodies are wounded, it also constricts our blood vessels—especially those in our brain's frontal lobes, which are responsible for high-level thinking.

It can take hours for these chemicals to work their way through our bodies and for our ability to think calmly and clearly to return. If severe stress becomes chronic, these chemicals can actually damage and/or kill cells in the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that is critical to memory and learning. Under chronic stress, the hippocampus has even been found to shrink!

Additional Effects of Stress

In Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

, Daniel Goleman describes several serious effects of stress. For example, he says that:

  • Stress can lead to learning difficulties such as hyperactivity (including ADD and ADHD), difficulty focusing on a task, and poor physical coordination.

  • Damage to the hippocampus has been implicated in cases of extreme depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

  • Adrenalin levels naturally rise as we age, so the presence of chronic stress makes the hippocampus even more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease, seizures and strokes.

  • Unrelieved stress produces hormonal imbalances that can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke.

  • Stress suppresses the immune system, which is responsible for fighting and destroying viruses and cancer. It also has detrimental effects on Types I and II diabetes and asthma.

So What’s the Solution?

To relieve the effects of stress, it is important to understand that we have the ability to change our emotional reactions to the events in our lives.

Goleman says that “Optimism and hope—like helplessness and despair—can be learned. Underlying both is an outlook psychologists call self-efficacy, the belief that one has mastery over the events of one’s life and can meet challenges as they come up.”

To learn about some tools, techniques and exercises you can use to cope with stress, return to:

Stress and Learning

Effects of Stress

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