“Stressed Brains Don’t Learn,” Says Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research

Best-selling author of Brain Rules, John Medina, explains that the less we feel in control of stress, the more we experience the type of stress that hurts learning. “If you feel out of control of your life,” says Medina, “you are more likely to experience depression and anxiety disorders” that impede learning. When stress is perceived to be within our control, however, it can be helpful to the learning process. We can reverse the effects of chronically extreme levels of stress that feel beyond our control in powerful ways that are simpler than we think.

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Simple may not feel easy to some of us at first, but WE CAN practice in positive changes that rewire the brain and reboot the body for learning. Life, work and school can once again feel like what they were intended to be: engaging, driven, exciting, and fun.

Tip 1: Control
Remember, when we feel more control over the stress we experience, we feel more power over our lives. This permits more learning. It turns out that greater self-control over our reactions and emotions, no matter how much stress we’re under, is key. Five decades of research, recently summarized by researchers at Syracuse University, shows that those of us with better self-control ultimately fare better in school and in life. Very basic sensory tools allow us to gain more control over our stress response so that we feel empowered to handle our fair share of challenge. Please find an extensive teaching of these sensory tools at www.DrMelrose.com, in previous blogs as well as in my books and resources on and offline.

Tip 2: Sleep
Sleep lowers the dangerous levels of cortisol that are released in the brain and body throughout a frantic day, and this, according to Medina, allows the brain to calm itself enough to rehearse the things it learned that day, thousands of times. When stress hormones, like cortisol, are too high, the part of the brain that adapts, assimilates, and consolidates information does not function well at all. Most of learning happens during a good night’s sleep. Isn’t that ironic? All this time, we thought learning was happening in classrooms! If you’re having trouble sleeping, please know that the simple sensory tools needed for the self-control discussed in Tip 1, are also needed for falling and staying asleep. This is not a coincidence.

Tip 3: Exercise
The sensory tools needed for better sleep and more self-control cause critical structural changes to the brain, and physiological changes to the nervous system, as does exercise. According to Medina, “miracle grow for the brain,” a protein called BDNF, boosts learning for everyone, regardless of level of intelligence. This protein is released in spades during aerobic exercise. Studies show that learning outcomes increase by 22 per cent right after students exercise. Alzheimer’s and dementia are reduced by 50 per cent through exercise, while anxiety and depression are alleviated with an 80 per cent success rate, the same success rate as with the popular anti-depressant, Zoloft. It turns out that exercise, sleep, and the sensory tools needed for self-control, all reduce cortisol levels so that the executive functioning part of the brain can do the learning it was intended to do.