With today’s workforce feeling the need to multi-task whilst doing almost everything, job security at an all-time low despite improving economic conditions, and wage growth stagnating, it’s of little wonder that stress and anxiety, in work and in life, is rising exponentially. But whilst it’s true that stress does help to motivate people and help them to perform tasks more efficiently, the current amount of stress that is experienced by many workers today can have devastating short, and long term, effects.
One area of our lives that is particularly susceptible to stress-related damage is our ability to learn. Research from within the growing field of the neuroscience of learning, an area we are particularly passionate about at Teazl, has shown, in no uncertain terms, to what extent stress can damage your brain. Let’s discuss the research in a little more detail.
Stress and the learning brain: short term effects
During a period of stress, the brain releases a complex array of hormones, including the primary stress hormone, cortisol, as well as dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These hormones then activate an area of the brain called the amygdala, which subsequently triggers a ‘fight or flight’ type response. This response comes complete with a feeling of heightened alertness, stimulation and energy.
So far, so good, right? Not really. Although this activation of these hormones was valuable in our caveman days when our options really were to fight, or escape, today these hormones do everything for nothing – the brain is essentially mobilizing the body to perform the physical act of running or fighting, except that that is almost never required. As the brain is preparing the body for fight or flight, it essentially shuts off areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for making (longer- term) memories. As such, it is difficult, if not impossible, to learn during times of stress.
Longer term concerns
So if you can’t learn whilst stressed, can you just try and learn later when you’re not stressed? Once again, no, it unfortunately isn’t that easy.
The question for the modern worker is rapidly becoming – when aren’t you stressed? And even if you can still find a time when you aren’t stressed, the damage may already be done.
According to groundbreaking research undertaken at UC Berkley, people who are constantly stressed, over long periods of time, effectively damage the ‘white matter’ in their brains. What this essentially means is that the excessive production of cortisol leads their brain to become hardwired into a perpetual ‘fight or flight’ type response, and as a result they start to lose their ability to convert short term information into memories. Basically, their entire ability to learn slowly erodes over time. The study results, the research team say, explain why children who have traumatic childhoods often end up with learning difficulties.
Yet, for the modern worker, the results here are equaling devastating. Your ability to progress your personal, and professional, life forward is intimately connected with your ability to learn, and once you start to lose that – well, it isn’t possible to get it back.
So, for the sake of your short and long term learning ability – try to reduce stress where possible.
Author: Janine Cahill