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How Short-Term Stress Affects Learning and Memory

Last updated 4 years ago

Do you remember the feeling of "going blank" when the teacher called on you to answer a question in class? Did you feel like you forgot how to read when the teacher asked you to read out loud?

Fear of public speaking is consistently cited as a major phobia in people of all ages. Why do our brains fail us when we're called upon to speak or read in front of others? It's not just embarrassment or shyness – it's the effect of short-term stress.

What happens to our bodies when we experience stress?
During short-term stressful events, we experience sudden spikes of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes a number of cognitive and physical reactions in our bodies. In addition to agitation and nervousness, cortisol spikes impact the communication between regions of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Continuously high levels of cortisol can inhibit cognitive functions like planning, focus, impulse and emotional control. Since our brains function best when we are relaxed, finding tactics for reducing the effects of short-term stressors will lead to lower risks of long-term stress.

Identify short-term stress reactions
Pay attention to how your kids react in suddenly stressful situations. Reactions may range from stomachaches to becoming uncharacteristically quiet or extremely agitated. Try these ways to help your child cope with sudden stress:

  • Prepare – Talk with your children about specific situations that cause stress, and brainstorm ways to alleviate the pressure.
  • Breathe – Teach your child to breathe in deeply and exhale slowly a few times when he or she begins to feel the stress mounting.
  • Practice – If reading aloud is a big issue, let your child read aloud to you and family members or friends. This will help him get used to reading in front of an audience.
  • Play - "Freezing up" when questions are asked in class can be countered by making a game of answering questions. You and your child can work together to put homework related questions on cards. Then, you can each take turns drawing out cards and reading questions for the other to answer.

Stress may be inevitable, but with your help, your child can learn to use it to build skills. Contact the Literacy and Language Center at (415) 242-1205 to find out more about how we can help your child succeed.

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