How does stress impact us?
Thank you Captain DX, for having me today on this DX Done Right Podcast. I’m very anxious, and it’s not just because I’m here talking to online listeners. I never in a million years thought I’d live through a global pandemic, and I was already worried about climate change.
I felt really stressed about taking something like this on, but a conversation with my mom changed my mind. We were talking, and I was sharing my concerns about stress and brain health with her, and the topic really resonated. She was concerned about the stress, learning, and brain health of her grandchildren.
You know, of course, not her that I felt like I should start this conversation. I’m worried because high levels of stress for long periods of time can interfere with our ability to learn. When we feel stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol, and cortisol does a lot of really important things in our bodies. We all woke up this morning because our cortisol levels went up.
They either went up naturally and you woke up on your own, or they may have gone up rather unkindly when your alarm went off. Cortisol is normally at its highest concentration early in the day, then it slowly decreases until we go to sleep at night. The cycle repeats the next day. Cortisol regulates a number of important functions in our body. It regulates blood pressure and blood glucose. It helps our immunity. It can decrease our sensitivity.
And it gives us that little edge if we’re going to take a test, run a race, maybe give a podcast talk show, but what happens when we’re stressed such that our cortisol levels go up and they stay high for a long period of time? High levels of cortisol can cause us to lose bone density and muscle mass. They raise inflammation, lower immunity, and increase abdominal fat.
But maybe most concerning is that high levels of cortisol can interfere with our ability to think. You know, this feeling of just being so stressed out you can’t even form a thought, and when this happens, cortisol is interfering with our ability to learn. The bottom line is that all of the stress is making all of us worse learners.
So, how exactly does stress affect learning? So you need to understand that we are simply, put, learning machines. Everything we do, everything we experience, is causing us to learn, and it’s changing your brain. So brain change in response to learning is called neuroplasticity, and it doesn’t just happen in school. You’re doing this all the time. Have you changed your golf swing?
Well, you learned you can sing along to your new favorite song. Well, you learned that you know where to go in the grocery store to find that favorite item. And for me, it’s coffee, and you learn that too. When we learn, we change brain cells. Our brains are made up of billions of individual cells called neurons.
When we learn something new, they communicate with one another by transmitting chemical signals throughout the brain. The chemical content in our brain may change extremely quickly, and this is the process that allows short-term memories to form. Short-term memory is exactly what it sounds like. Because it is a new memory, it is delicate and easily forgotten. It must be repeated in order to be remembered and to persist throughout time and in varied contexts.
Long-term memory must be transformed from short-term memory. Have you ever studied for a test? You may have even studied as you entered the place where you would take the test. You may have received an excellent grade. Do you recall any of that information?
When you crammed, you created a short-term memory, but you didn’t study long enough to turn it into a long-term memory. To truly learn something, you must first develop a long-term memory. Long-term memories necessitate changes to the brain’s structure. This occurs as neurons make or break connections with other neurons. This takes time, but long-term memories are quite stable.
You never forget how to ride a bike once you’ve learned. You can also ride any bike. You don’t have to keep riding the tiny one you learned on, but building that long-term memory will need a lot of practice or study, as well as sleep. What occurs when we are very stressed? High cortisol levels make it more difficult for short-term memories to be converted into long-term memories, which is how long-term memories are formed.
Other substances in the brain known as growth factors aid in the creation of long-term memories by making it simpler to create and erase connections between neurons. Growth factors directly assist learning, yet growth factors and cortisol compete in the brain. Consider a mall parking lot. Every parking space is taken. It’s a complete nightmare.
There is no parking, so you drive around in circles. Something similar happens in your mind. In order for chemicals to attach to your neurons, they must first bind to a receptor. The receptors are the parking spaces, and if they are all occupied by cortisol, there is no room for growth hormones, which hinders learning.
But there is some good news. The single most important driver of neuroplasticity is our behavior. That implies we can act in a variety of ways. We can do things to assist our brains in learning. So, what should we do now? We can assist our brain learn in a variety of ways. Exercise is one of the most effective things. We previously knew that exercise was beneficial to our hearts and muscles, but it turns out that it also had profound benefits on the brain.
A single session of rigorous exercise, according to research from the University of British Columbia, can affect cortical excitability, alter brain function, and increase learning. So, in these trials, we have individuals exercise and then practice learning something new, and there is no benefit of exercise in the short term within the same session.
However, when we had participants return the next day and compared those who exercised to those who did not, we observed that the exercise group had a considerable edge. Exercise appears to aid in the conversion of a short-term memory to a long-term memory while also lowering cortisol levels. When the tow truck arrives, it removes cortisol to make room for testosterone.
Importantly, it makes no difference how you exercise. Walking, running, dancing, hiking, cycling, and skiing are all options. They are all extremely beneficial to the brain. So, what else can we excel at? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get eight hours of sleep last night.
We are a sleep-deprived population, yet we sleep eight hours every night rather than six. Another research from the same lab compared persons who practice yoga for leisure two to three times per week against runners, assessing their physical fitness, stress levels, and brain activity while they were placed in different positions.
Situations that are stressful And now I’ll admit that when we first started this study, I was totally certain that the runners would be healthier, since I’m a lifetime distance runner, and I was correct, but only slightly. People who practiced yoga exhibited lower levels of stress and a much more adaptable pattern of brain activity when we put them in these stressful conditions, whereas runners showed superior physical fitness. It’s more likely that the practice of mindfulness linked with yoga is changing the brain than the poses themselves.
Other studies in children have found that practicing mindfulness, which is just sitting motionless for brief periods of time during the day and focusing on how you feel, decreases cortisol and improves academic performance. Mindfulness appears to just enable the brain to rest and refresh. We seldom give our brains a break in our busy, technology-driven lifestyles. We seldom give our brains the freedom to wander.
However, it appears that our brains require these kinds of pauses, and feeding them with lower cortisol levels can reduce stress and boost learning. Life is difficult and full of change, yet we can control how that stress affects our brains. Exercise, sleep, and cultivate mindfulness. All of this frees up space for learning. Each one decreases cortisol and reduces stress.
They assist you in learning regardless of your age or what you are attempting to understand. Each has significant consequences for brain health, and we must do everything we can to protect our brains. We can only have one. Who knows, maybe you’ll pass by me and my mother on your next walk. We’ll see you there.