Information Age Education
   Issue Number 64
April, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

Information Age Education publishes a blog covering a variety of topics related to improving education. The following entry may interest you.

IAE Blog 4/3/2011. Educational tips on the neurobiology of learning. Retrieved 4/24/2011 from

Stress and Education Part 1:
Introduction and Overview

This series of four articles explores the psychology and biology of stress, with a special focus on the kinds of stress that negatively affect educational settings. Young people face a wide range of potential stressors—school being one of these.

When we confront a challenge that portends danger or promises opportunity, our brain can normally draw on its considerable problem solving capabilities to develop a carefully considered effective response. Some challenges require a rapid response that uses a lot of energy however, and this article will focus principally on how we respond to them.

We have an innate rapid response system for such imminent dangers and opportunities. You are probably familiar with the terms “fight, freeze, or flight” as response possibilities when your brain senses a possible life-threatening problem situation. In 1975 pioneer researcher Hans Selye called this the stress response. (See The stress response evolved to set priorities on the expenditure of body/brain energy when confronting an extraordinary imminent challenge. The stress response:
  1. Temporarily increases energy flow to the body/brain systems that enhance an assertive response to the current challenge, such as our circulation, respiration, attention, and motor systems, and

  2. Temporarily decreases energy flow to the systems that aren't necessary for a rapid assertive response to the current challenge, such as our digestion, immune, and sexual arousal systems.
A good example of what occurs biologically in a stress response is the rush of adrenaline that prepares our body for physical response to the actual or potential attack. A somewhat slower release of cortisol increases glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, enhances our brain's use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. We’ll expand on this later.

We tend to think of stress in negative terms, but the response can certainly be positive. For example, an appropriate level of stress can help a person do better on a test or in an athletic performance. This type of stress response is of limited duration—it is not chronic.
Chronic stress is physically and mentally debilitating because it uses a short-term high-energy response system geared to physical danger and opportunity to deal with a problem that’s typically doesn’t portend physical injury. For example, a teacher getting stressed out for days on end because of classroom misbehavior is counterproductive. Better to engage your problem solving capabilities in creating a classroom environment that reduces misbehavior.

Our lives are full of continuing challenges that are not life threatening, and that thus should activate our brain’s problem solving rather than stress response systems. For example, many adults feel continually stressed by commuting traffic, workplace and family problems, and financial needs. Ask yourself: What’s the point of tensing up your shoulder muscles for several days because your credit card is overdrawn? Does muscle tension solve the problem?

Chronic Stress and Education

Consider a child growing up in poverty and in a home situation in which the caregivers are stressed by their inability to meet the needs of their children. They may have a stressful (or no) job, be abusive, excessively use alcohol and/or other drugs, and so on. The child may face additional stressors such as neighborhood gangs, a high local crime rate, inadequate health care, and school problems.

Many children living in such an environment develop chronic stress that affects their general health, learning, and ability to cope with situations they routinely encounter. This series of the IAE Newsletter will focus on:
  1. How stress—especially chronic stress—affects informal and formal education.

  2. How schooling is especially stressful for some students. We’ll focus specifically on our math education system. It serves as a good area to study because many students find math education particularly stressful.

Biochemistry of Stress Response

The biochemical stress responses of adrenaline release and cortisol production are relatively well understood by scientists.
  • Adrenaline—this hormone increases the heart rate and force of heart contractions, facilitates blood flow to the muscles and brain, causes relaxation of smooth muscles, helps with conversion of glycogen to glucose in the liver, and other functions.

  • Noradrenaline—this hormone has strong vasoconstrictive effects, thus increasing blood pressure.
When we sense a potentially stressful challenge, our brain’s hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormones, which stimulate the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, in turn, produces corticotropin hormones, which stimulate the adrenal glands to produce and secrete corticosteroid hormones.

Stressors and the Stress Response

A stressor is anything that triggers a stress response. People often use the word stress in place of the word stressor. The commonly heard statements such as “I feel stressed” and “I am stressed out” are indicators that the speaker is experiencing a stress response. Such statements do not give an indication of the stressors leading to the stress response.

Indeed, it can often be difficult to match a particular stressor with a particular set of results. A student arriving at school in the morning may feel stress from the shouting match her parents had the previous evening, being hassled about getting ready to leave for school on time, an unpleasant interaction with a bully on the school bus, and a test scheduled for second period. The combination of these stressors might lead her to do poorly on the test.

Three general categories of stressors (stress) produce the same stress response:


Distress occurs when internal and external sensors perceive actual or potentially immediate threats to life and limb.
  • Internal sensory examples include pain that might be a heart attack, partial paralysis that might come from a stroke, or a sudden headache.

  • Our five external sensory systems can bring us information about immediate threats—be they the smell of something burning in one’s house, the siren of an ambulance, or a nearby bolt of lightning.
You have undoubtedly heard the statement, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The trouble with this statement is that abusive or inflammatory words can trigger a stress response. Indeed, you may well find that television and other ads designed to sell you products are stressful, perhaps making you feel inadequate because you do not have the preffered products.

Threats Identified by Conscious
or Subconscious Thinking

Thinking about a potentially stressful situation that might occur in the future can produce a stress response. “I didn’t have time to do the required reading for my history class. I am afraid the teacher will call on me in class. I will be standing there with everybody looking at me, ready to laugh if I give a wrong answer.” “I am worried that I will do poorly on the math test next week. So much depends on it!” “I am afraid that my friend will want the two of us to go to a movie this weekend. I just don’t have enough money for a ticket and refreshments, and I don’t know how to handle this situation.”

Eustress (Good Stress)

The term eustress (good stress) was first used by endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1975, when he published a model dividing stress into two major categories: eustress and distress. Eustress is the positive form of stress, often related to desirable events in a person's life. Examples include getting married, getting a new job or a job promotion that you are seeking, and doing well in a game, sporting, or other completion.

Eustress and distress both produce the same human stress response because all your brain knows is that you’re confronting a challenge. For example getting a job (eustress) and getting fired from a job (distress) create basically the same problem: What do I do now to succeed vocationally?

The Yerkes–Dodson law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, originally developed in 1908 by psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental stress response arousal, but only up to a point. See the diagram below. When the intensity of the stress response becomes too high, performance decreases.

Arousal & Stress Level

Upside-down U-shaped performance versus stress curve.

Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress

Effects on the Body

The short-term rapid stress response facilitating fight or fight can save your life. However, chronic stress is both physically and mentally damaging. In brief summary, this is because the stress response shuts down many bodily activities that are not essential to facing the immediate challenge.

For example, the normal functioning of your immune system, digestive system, and reproductive system are a low priority as you rapidly run to and climb a tree to escape from a pack of hyenas. If these periodically shut down for a short period and then resume normal functioning levels, no damage results. But extended shutdowns of these systems will obviously cause problems:

Quoting from WebMD (n.d.): Chronic stress can affect your:

Immune system. Constant stress can make you more susceptible to infection and other illnesses.

Heart. Stress is linked to high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia), blood clots, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). It's also linked to coronary artery disease, heart attack, and heart failure.

Muscles. Constant tension from stress can lead to neck, shoulder, and low back pain. Stress may make rheumatoid arthritis worse.

Effects on the Brain

We have long known that too high a stress level (as in the right side of the U-shaped stress response curve discussed above) and/or chronic stress are detrimental to one’s brain. As indicated earlier, the stress response evolved to provide an innate rapid assertive response to imminent physical threats and opportunities. Thus, if I’m crossing a street and notice a rapidly approaching car, the only sensible thing to do is to quickly determine which direction to run to avoid getting hit. What I don’t need to know is who is driving the car, what brand it is, and similar kinds of useless information in this situation. So just as it’s a good idea to shut down our digestive and immune systems when confronted by a stressful challenge, it’s also important to shut down our much slower reflective thinking and problem solving systems. A brain structure called the hippocampus is the avenue to memory and reflective thinking.

So under intense stress, we tend to respond innately, emotionally, and quickly. That’s why we tend to go through life with a litany of regrets and apologies for doing and saying things that we retrospectively realize were stupid.

No negative long-term effects result from periodic short term shut downs of our rational problem solving system, but chronic shutdowns will eventually cause serious problems with the system. For more than 25 years we have know that chronic stress impairs hippocampal function leading to:
  • Neuronal atrophy and destruction of neurons,
  • Decreased short term memory, and
  • Decreased contextual memory.
More recent research is giving us a better understanding of what is actually happening in the hippocampus. Quoting from Your Amazing Brain (n.d.):

The cortisol released in stress travels into the brain and binds to the receptors inside many neurons (in the cytoplasm). Through a cascade of reactions, this causes neurons to admit more calcium through channels in their membrane.
In the short-term, cortisol presumably helps the brain to cope with the life-threatening situation. However, if neurons become over-loaded with calcium they fire too frequently and die—they are literally excited to death.

Here is a related tidbit that you may find interesting. In recent years, research has shown that our brains produce new neurons, especially in the hippocampus. This growth is important to learning and memory. Joe Hibert’s research lab has shown that the cortisol component of the stress response dramatically decreases the rate new brain cells are formed (Hibert, n.d.) However, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants can counter this decrease and promote new neuron growth in the hippocampus.

Final Remarks

The literature on various causes of stress and how to reduce chronic stress is vast. Stress reduction can be facilitated by appropriate exercise, diet, relaxation techniques, and meditation.

Education about stress and coping mechanisms can be built into our educational system. Doing so can add to the physical and cognitive health of students and help improve our educational system. We’ll explore these in three subsequent articles in this series.


Hibert, Joe (n.d.). Cambridge Neuroscience. Retrieved 4/21/2011 from

WebM (n.d.). Stress management health center. Retrieved 4/21 2011 from:

Yerkes-Dobson Law (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/19/2010 from

Your Amazing Brain (n.d). Stress: Your brain and body. Retrieved 4/21/2011 from

About Information Age Education, Inc.

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