Holistic Learning Part 6: How does the brain react to stress when learning a language?

“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”

Hans Selye –

As schools and colleges seem to love using standardized tests, more and more students are feeling the stress. The surge of under 18s being prescribed medication for anxiety is unfortunately on the increase!  This stress does not stop at college school… independent language learners can stress about not speaking as fluently as they want to OR may even have to take tests to prove a level of language efficiency for employees.

So, How Does the Brain React to Stress? 

Stress is the body’s natural reaction to an increased demand that is placed on it. It exists for a reason… for a person to take action.

Now if you were an elastic band you could stretch…BUT… what happens to an elastic band that is stretched too far? It breaks!

A student’s reaction, to a standardized test or an independent learners reaction to the high-level goals they place upon their self, may induce stress. This could then trigger a response of the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems leading to disrupted sleeping patterns, tiredness, irregular eating habits, increased infections, excessive worry, and the inability to focus. This can increase the risk of just giving up on the language by a student or independent learner!

Studies have also shown that students suffering from stress and anxiety have decreased cognitive functioning, such as a reduced memory capacity and problems with processing information.

Where is stress processed within the brain? 

Three different brain regions are responsible for the way someone processes stress in the form of fear…

1). The prefrontal cortex. This area is believed to play a part in the interpretation of sensory stimuli and also has a part in emotional regulation and cognitive functioning. As a consequence, it is seen as the area of the brain where danger is first assessed!

2). This danger then translates as fear within the brain. Fear is processed in the amygdala, which resides in a “primitive” (sometimes known as reptilian) area of our brain more formally known as the limbic system (that includes the hippocampus that hosts our memories).

3). Finally, the hypothalamus is an area at the base of the brain. This sends signals from the prefrontal cortex and amygdala and coordinates the release of hormones.  These drive your motor responses to the perceived threats. If the stress levels are high the body releases cortisol and, in so doing, it is preparing the body to defend itself from harm. This was great in our caveman days when we had a saber tooth tiger to fight off – but a reaction to a test or our own goal setting! We can’t spear our exam papers.

In summary, stress can impact negatively upon our performance in tests, and prolonged stress can lead to serious physical and mental illness.

So if stress can negatively impact on our learning ability what can we do about it? 

  • Ensure you have a good study routine in place with regular breaks. Increase fluid (water) and fuel (food) intake and get some physical exercise, at least 2 30 minute aerobic workouts per week – this could include walking.  (You might wanna link in the other articles here that I have written i.e. on food)
  • Set realistic goals.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and embrace mistakes – this is how we learn. Try to find humor in any mistakes. Seeing the funny side is a good strategy as when you laugh you release the bodies feel-good chemicals. If you stress over a situation the body releases cortisol and too much build up of this can be bad for mental and physical wellbeing.
  • Facing an exam? Take a deep breath (or 3) even if’s during the test. This will help re-oxygenate the brain.
  • Take 5 to review your own mindset. Are you being too hard on yourself? Is a perfectionist attitude having an impact on learning?
  • Talk to someone.

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