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Story | Community
10 January 2021

QF psychologist highlights the effects of stress on students’ brains


The impact of the pandemic on learning has created extra stress for students and their families.

Image source: arrowsmith2, via Shutterstock

Long-term stress can wreak havoc on the mind and body, and the pandemic is proving to be a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on mental health and well-being

Education can bring pressures in normal circumstances, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students and educators are having to deal with the effects of long-term stress.

Distance learning presents challenges for students and their families, and the pandemic has also spotlighted the importance of social and emotional learning among children, so that they are better equipped to deal with educational and other stresses in a post-COVID world.

While we don’t yet know the long-term effect of stress caused by an unexpected global calamity, a student’s ability to learn and engage in an online or face-to-face learning system could drastically decrease.

A prolonged stressful episode can affect a student’s ability to learn and engage.

Our brains deal with stress by going into a ‘survival mode’, where a part of the brain that acts as its command center tells our body’s nervous system to create cortisol, a hormone that gives us the energy for a response – fight or flight – that helps us combat the source of that stress.

But as Dr. Tracy Hardister, a clinical psychologist at The Learning Center, part of Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University Education, explains: “If the stressful situation doesn’t subside, the nervous system continues to pump out more hormones, such as cortisol, to keep the body alert and ready for that fight-or-flight response.

Constant levels of cortisol tire out our nervous system, negatively impacting our brain

Dr. Tracy Hardister

“What this means is that constant levels of cortisol tire out our nervous system, negatively impacting our brain, causing difficulties with memory, decreased ability to focus, and increased fatigue, as well as poor sleep and significant mood swings.”

Under stress, the quality of our memory is impacted. We can only learn what scientists call stimulus-response-associations; simple gut reaction behaviors formed by habit. This means the student will struggle when faced with complex problems.

Intentional self-care is identified as one of the ways students can lessen their stress levels

Stress is first picked up in the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. Shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression).

The amygdala alerts the hypothalamus during a period of stress. This part of the organ functions as the central command center for the brain. The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain. It's located at the base of the brain, near the pituitary gland. While it's very small, the hypothalamus plays a crucial role in many important functions, including releasing hormones.

Self-care can include a wide range of activities that are not only enjoyable, but also assist in regulating our fight-or-flight response

Dr. Tracy Hardister

The hormone the hypothalamus releases is cortisol through what is referred to as the called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of vital processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has a very important role in helping the body respond to stress.

Blood levels of cortisol vary throughout the day, but generally are higher in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day. This is called a diurnal rhythm. In people that work at night, this pattern is reversed, so the timing of cortisol release is clearly linked to daily activity patterns. In addition, in response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately.

Problem-solving becomes impossible because students can’t recall what they have previously learned. That’s not the only problem: students recall negative emotions easily but forget what they have read to study for an exam. Testing students during periods of stress has proved so negative that many think there should be another metric to judge student’s abilities during periods of prolonged stress.

Dr. Hardister says there are things students can to =stay resilient during times of prolonged stress, such as the pandemic – with intentional self-care being one of them.

“Self-care can include a wide range of activities that are not only enjoyable, but also assist in regulating our fight-or-flight response, resulting in the reduction of the cortisol in our system that negatively impacts our overall functioning, ” she said.

Genetics, brain psychology and more play a role in the study of resiliency to stress. Unfortunately, for many of today’s students, an experiment in stress management is now part of their learning experience.

Watch the full video on how pandemic-induced stress affects students, co-produced by WIRED Brand Lab with Qatar Foundation, here.

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