How stress affects learning

November 1, 2008

Stress has the ability to affect so many areas of our lives.Our ability to function healthily, make effective decisions, avoid illness and infections are all dependent on how well we cope with stress.

It’s the role of cortisol, what we know as the “stress hormone” that is crucial in coping with stress. It now appears that high levels of cortisol in the body over a prolonged period of time impairs learning ability in young people, and also weakens memory as we get older.

It has already been demonstrated in 2001, by researchers at Utrecht University in Holland, that high stress levels can delay puberty, and a new study links stress and memory impairment. McGill University in the US has a well-respected Human Stress Research Laboratory and they have been running a study for the past six years to test memory on both young people and older adults. What they found was that long-term stress creates sustained high levels of cortisol, and when cortisol levels remain high with only brief periods of relaxation, the resulting chronic stress may help trigger problems with memory as well as possible blood sugar imbalance, high blood pressure, and decreased bone density and muscle tissue.

Cortisol is not a villain, when it is released in small amounts, it can sometimes briefly improve memory, and even supply a burst of energy, but it is prolonged exposure to stress that causes the real problem. Approximately 30% of elderly people start to produce too much cortisol and the first way to deal with it is to find out what is causing the major stress. Obviously there are many factors, but a key one turns out to be environmental. Those who do not have adequate social support, are far more likely to have cortisol levels than those who don’t.

Obviously there is no one, quick answer, and it can’t be solved by taking a pill. It’s about lifestyle examination, good nutrition, exercise and an enjoyable social life. Get those in balance and you are a long way forward on resolving your stress issues. If you need to find out why, you will find helpful tips and suggestions in my book ‘How To Cope Successfully With Stress’ and you will find more information about it at


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