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The Neurology behind Student Stress

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

[Photo Credit: Education Week]

Have you ever heard of the “flight or fight” theory? First coined by Walter Cannon, chairman of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, this theory states that the perception of danger activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers the release of catecholamines, hormones made by the adrenal glands. Ultimately, this physical response prompts an individual to either fight or flee, playing a critical role in our survival during life-threatening situations. In today’s world, this evolutionary adaptation can additionally help us cope with daily stressful events. Specifically, this physical response can prompt students to perform effectively in taxing situations such as exams. As such, many scholars and researchers believe that the implementation of stress on students is extremely beneficial. However, it is also important to take into consideration the harmful effects of repeated stresses on a student’s neurodevelopment.

When students are exposed to extended periods of stress, also known as chronic stress, the body creates excess cortisol, a steroid hormone, which prevents the brain from functioning properly. By disrupting the body’s homeostasis, high amounts of cortisol kill brain cells and shrink the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain’s temporal lobe which is responsible for memory and learning. Thus, high levels of stress may significantly reduce a student’s learning capability in the long run and disprove the aforementioned belief.

Moreover, the reduction of the prefrontal cortex is combined with an enlargement in the amygdala. As a part of the brain's limbic system, the amygdala creates “emotional memories,” which attach specific emotions to stressful events. Following this concept, an increase in size of the amygdala causes the brain to be more receptive towards stress. Thus, changes in sizes of the cortisol and amygdala create a domino effect where the brain becomes sensitive to stress and constantly operates in a fight or flight state. Through this evidence, it is clear that students who experience high levels of stress will not only incur learning issues, but will face stressful situations more frequently in the future. Furthermore, chronic stress can result in mental health issues for students. This said form of stress essentially alters chemicals such as serotonin, which regulate cognition and mood. Therefore, students who develop chronic stress are likely to encounter cognitive problems or mood disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders.

[Photo Credit: Pompano Medical Center]

Through the analysis of stress on students, it is evident that numerous psychological issues may stem from chronic stress. While small amounts of stress can positively influence students, extended periods of stress decrease a student’s cognitive and learning abilities, negatively impacting their well-being.


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Sahakian , Barbara Jacquelyn, et al. “How Chronic Stress Changes the Brain – and What You Can Do to Reverse the Damage.” Edited by Misha Ketchell , The Conversation, 12 Mar. 2020,

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Sukel , Kayt. “Beyond Emotion: Understanding the Amygdala's Role in Memory.” Dana Foundation, Dana Foundation, 13 Mar. 2018,

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