Too Stressed to Learn

Our days of heading back to school may be long gone, but there’s the old cliché that “you learn something new every day.” When you’re extremely stressed, that’s difficult. It turns out, stress does more than make people feel frazzled or irritable—it can impact the learning process.

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Why? Memory is derived from interactions related to reading, working, understanding and processing daily experiences. When we are stressed, cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, hits neurons in the hippocampus, the central area for learning and memory. High and prolonged stress levels cause an excess of cortisol in our brains. As a result, our ability to retain and produce old and new memories decreases.

A prime example of how cortisol can be counterproductive is in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims of PTSD may experience an inability to retain memories during periods of active distress. An overdrive of cortisol may also impede an over-stressed colleague’s ability to stay focused and create new memories and access existing ones, making it difficult to truly learn something.

That said, stress isn’t all-bad. Generally speaking, a moderate amount of cortisol is enough to induce a sympathetic response that is advantageous to staying focused and on task. Numbers vary, but healthy cortisol levels at 7-25 micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dl) in the morning and 2-14 mcg/dl at night. It’s only when the numbers are in excess of the outer-limits that stress becomes a hinderance to the learning process.

Whether you are working, in college or experienced something that has affected your ability to focus there are always options to help manage your functional activity. Speaking with an experienced clinician or physician is the next best step.

dr. uruj kamal

dr. uruj kamal

Dr. Uruj Kamal is Chief Resident of Adult Outpatient Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center-University of Massachusetts Medical School. A Stony Brook native, she enjoys combining her knowledge of mental health with healthy living. Dr. Kamal has a special interest in outpatient adult psychiatry.