Stress is a tricky emotion to feel. We often hear that stress can be controlled in a helpful way. You know the saying, “Not all stress is bad stress.” But, more often than not, stress just feels beyond our control. It can make work harder and less bearable in the moment and we start to shut down mentally whether or not we like it. It’s a snowball of stress which leads to not getting stuff done which then adds more stress to your original stress. What if we learned about stress, not from an emotional perspective, but from a neuroscientist’s perspective to get down to the nitty gritty of stress itself? Would that help us to understand our bodies’ reactions in a more logical way and utilize our ability to control the seemingly uncontrollable?
I interviewed Dr. Gretchen Gotthard, associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at Muhlenberg and a behavioral neuroscientist who studies memory, amnesia and learning, to delve deeper into the topic of stress to see if maybe stress can be controlled in a more logical sense, as opposed to working from an emotional stance.
“Two systems work together to produce our responses to stress,” says Gotthard. “The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.” The SNS would be the first line of attack in response to the stressful situation and the body releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). These two chemicals come from the adrenal glands that are basically part of the fight or flight response. These chemicals act as a quick response system and provide you with a boost of energy, so if you were to be in a situation where your friend jumps out at you all of a sudden your body would either run away from or fight the friend who has scared you. The second system, the HPA, is the prolonged response to the stressor that releases glucocorticoids, of which cortisol is one example. As you can tell, there is a natural response to stress that happens in your brain with not one, but two different lines of attack, to help you deal with the stress.
Now we know how the brain, on a logical level, deals with the stressful situations that come into its life, but how does stress affect learning and memory? There are a few things to consider when talking about learning and memory, such as how our how different levels of stress can either enhance our ability to recall information or inhibit it. “The SNS and HPA axis affect memory directly and indirectly via a structure in the brain called the basolateral amygdala” explains Gotthard. This allows us to understand the higher function of how this memory consolidation works instead of just acknowledging that it happens. “In the short-term, stress enhances consolidation of memory, especially for emotional information,” says Gotthard. “In fact, acute stress can actually enhance neural growth.”
So, stress can actually help us to remember important information in the short-term, which could be very useful for tests and work that requires relatively quick recall. If you’re anything like me, testing is difficult, so any extra help — and information that I can apply — is useful. Significant information is easier to recall than mundane information.
What’s extremely interesting, though, is that stress, although effective for recalling information, can also impair the brain’s ability to retrieve information. There’s a certain point in which the degree of stress outweighs the amount of stress you need in order for it to be considered beneficial and to be able to utilize it. One of the scarier long-term effects of chronic stress is that “the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for the organization of personal event memories [i.e., episodic memories] is damaged by prolonged exposure to cortisol” according to Gotthard. If you let stress get to the point where it inhibits your ability to function, it’s not just detrimental on an emotional and a physical level, but you actually could be damaging your brain. There is some good news: there are ways to deal with and alleviate chronic stress that impedes your ability to think clearly and function well. For starters, you can deal with the problem head on, whether it’s a stressor that has to do with a major life event or a pile-up of homework, and just get the work done and deal with the life stressor. Other ways include eating healthfully, sleeping well (which I know is hard for the majority of students), practicing breathing-focused meditation and getting regular exercise.
Gotthard believes it to be important to note, as do I, that “all individuals experience stress in their lives, [it’s] a key feature in motivating us to achieve. It is not until stress becomes excessive that is becomes problematic.” I think herein lies the issue with stress these days. We let it build to the point at which it becomes debilitating. We don’t learn to manage our stress or figure out how to let the stress motivate us to succeed, but instead allow it to break us down and make us feel as though nothing will get accomplished. Yet, when used correctly, stress can help us achieve so much more than we know. Remember, too, that talking with people you trust implicitly can be a great way to alleviate and help us manage stress.
Photo courtesy of “aaayyymm eeelectriik” on Flickr