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The impact of stress and anxiety on learning

Wednesday 20 November 2019

We know about the negative impact of educational experiences on the mental health of children, indeed the BDA’s report on the Human Cost of Dyslexia highlighted that this is an area of real concern.

There is though, an additional consideration as well as the obvious detrimental impact on the individual. Research tells us that stress and anxiety actually do inhibit learning particularly where it is prolonged or where there is repeated exposure (McEwen 2012). When we are stressed or highly anxious the hormones that the body produces, particularly cortisol, divert essential resources from the brain to the large muscles in the body in preparation for fight and flight. So, in simple terms the “thinking part” of the brain needed for learning can’t work effectively during periods of heightened stress and increased anxiety.

Combined with this, is that humans can also trigger this stress reaction by simply thinking about or remembering the stressful situation. So even if they are not actually in the stressful situation, remembering it, even in a different situation or later on in life, would potentially have the same impact on the individual. For example, simply being in a learning or training environment could be enough to trigger anxiety and stress related to previous educational experiences that will then again prevent learning.

Another interesting consideration identified recently by Zhu et al 2018, is that feelings of shame trigger feelings of anger. “When others do not know the individual’s emotion causing events, shame automatically triggers anger”. So effectively if you don’t know someone is dyslexic and you ask them to do something that causes them to feel shame, such as reading or writing, you may well get an angry response. There is also evidence to suggest that the physiological response to shame is very similar to the response to pain (Elison et al 2014). Therefore, once again preventing learning as well as being detrimental to the individual and their well-being.

Yet “when others know the emotion causing events but are inclined to devalue them, the individuals control their anger at others and are ready to suffer poor treatment to prevent social exclusion”. The impact on the individual in either case is great, leading to a vicious circle of vulnerability and negative emotion that prevents learning and undermines the self-esteem of the individual and ultimately has a long-term detrimental impact on mental (and physical) health.

What does this mean for dyslexics?

In summary, stress and anxiety will prevent learning. Simply thinking about or remembering the previous experiences will likely illicit the same physiological response and prevent learning. Feelings of shame by an individual over their ability to carry out activities in a learning environment (or other environment) are likely to trigger anger or be internalised to prevent social exclusion and cause yet more damage to the individual. There is therefore a good case not just for acknowledging that mental health is important, but for addressing these issues to improve learning and behaviour.

Written by: Helen Boden, BDA CEO