Inside the Brain of a Stressed Out Student

09 December 2021
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For many individuals, school can be a stressful environment, and the COVID-19 pandemic has added to that stress. To understand the implications of this increased stress, let’s examine what it does to the brain. 

Broadly, the brain has two systems involved in stress: 1) the frontal system and 2) the limbic system. The frontal system is also referred to as the cognitive or higher-thinking system as it is involved with regulating attention, inhibiting inappropriate behaviors and regulating emotions. The limbic system has been referred to as the primitive or automatic system. This system is involved in our fight-or-flight response, emotional responses and in bottom-up attentional processes. 

Stress affects memory and learning by shifting which system is in charge.

Scales - Stress Blog Post

In non-stressful conditions, when the cognitive or frontal system is in charge, students are ready to learn. They can focus better, have better executive functioning, and are able to self-regulate. The frontal lobe is acting as a brake pedal, calming down the limbic system’s more reflexive responses. However, when students are overwhelmed with stress, the limbic or primitive system takes over and the brake pedal is, let’s just say, out of order. Educators may observe cognitive delays, dysregulated behavior and learning loss as a result. To summarize: when students are stressed their brain is in survival mode and, thus, is not ready to learn.

How do we help a stressed out student? Mindfulness and brain activation exercises are two methods that can be used. These lead to more activity in students’ frontal lobes, which can then “apply the brakes” on their limbic system. Mindfulness also has many other benefits and these are discussed more in previous blog posts

Another way to reduce stress is through expressive writing and affect labelling. When students write about the stressors in their lives, they use their frontal system to manage their emotional response, rather than letting their limbic system handle it. One study showed that anxious students who wrote down their feelings about an upcoming challenging task used fewer “worry parts” of their brain during the task. It seems that writing helped off-load these worries. Affect labelling refers to the act of attaching a word to an emotion/feeling. This can dampen the emotion and provide insight into regulating those emotions. 

Interested in learning more about stress? Check out this post on student mental health.

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