Do you know the physiological difference between positive and negative stress? Do you understand the characteristics that can transform a situation into a source of stress? Can you tell the difference between absolute and relative stress? Do you know stress’s proven and sometimes surprising effects on memory and learning? Test your knowledge by answering the following five questions.
1. True or false? “Positive” stress involves physiological mechanisms that differ from those of “negative” stress.
Some people make a distinction between negative stress and positive stress, calling the latter “eustress” and associating it with short-term stress that provides the energy and impetus needed to meet a challenge, boost performance, stimulate creativity and so on. However, whether we speak of stress or eustress, the physiological mechanisms at work are the same.
2. A situation can trigger stress if it has one or more specific characteristics. What are they? A) reduced sense of control B) unpredictability C) novelty D) threat to the ego
ALL THESE RESPONSES
Stress is caused by a situation that presents one or more of the following four characteristics: a reduced sense of control, unpredictability, novelty or threat to the ego (Sonia Lupien, Ph. D., and the Centre d’études sur le stress human (CESH)). Some sources of stress affect us all invariably (suffering a natural disaster, for example), while others are subjective and affect each individual to varying degrees (taking an exam, for example).
Feeling your heart pounding, sweating, clammy hands, becoming hypervigilant and ready to react – these are just some of the signs of stress that prepare us to “save our skins”; signs that result from the production and release of adrenalin and cortisol, the so-called “stress hormones.” These hormones transmit their message to cells in various parts of the body, including the brain.
3. True or false? Unlike animals, our bodies know the difference between “absolute stress” (which really threatens our lives) and “relative stress.”
Let’s remember that the stress reaction is a survival mechanism designed to mobilize the energy needed to fight or flee danger as soon as we perceive that our physical or psychological integrity is threatened.
As stress specialist Sonia Lupien explains in one of her articles, our bodies don’t differentiate between “absolute stress,” which actually threatens our lives, and “relative stress.” In the latter case, stress occurs when we find ourselves in a situation with one or more of these characteristics: little control, unpredictability, novelty and a threat to our ego.
Thus, in the face of relative stress, “you produce a stress response similar to the one you produce in the face of absolute stress, i.e. you secrete stress hormones that will subsequently access your brain and modify the way you interpret the situation,” says Ms. Lupien.
4. Which of the following statements is incorrect? A) Stress hormones travel to the brain and have a marked preference for certain regions involved in learning, memory and emotion regulation. B) The brain areas with the most stress hormone receptors are the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex, three interconnected regions involved in the development of new memories. C) One of the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone) is to sharpen our ability to memorize information that, in a stressful situation, is useful to our survival so that we’re warned and better equipped in the event of a similar experience. D) Our ability to learn and memorize new information is less when we secrete too much stress hormone and optimal when our stress hormone secretion is below the normal threshold.
After conducting studies on the subject, the Center for the Study of Human Stress has demonstrated that our ability to learn and memorize new information is less when we secrete too much stress hormone but also too little. These findings suggest that stress hormones – and more precisely, “normal” levels of stress hormones – are essential to memory function.
5. All of the following phenomena have been demonstrated by studies except one. Which is it? A) A stressed teacher can transmit their stress to their students through a “contagion” effect. B) Chronic stress provides high-potential students with enhanced cognitive performance. C) Regular physical exercise benefits stress levels and academic performance in university students. D) Students with a high sense of self-efficacy have better stress management.
We all need to try to keep chronic stress at bay. In our hectic daily lives, the obligation to achieve results is less conducive to a state of flow than to stress and anxiety, both of which, if they become chronic, can seriously hamper our momentum. “Faced with a stressful element, the body produces stress hormones that serve to fight or flee. These hormones make their way to the brain, with a marked preference for certain regions involved in learning, memory and emotion regulation,” explains Sonia Lupien, neuroscientist and director of the Centre d’études sur le stress humain. And when a disturbing event occurs, all an individual’s attention is captured by it, report Lupien and her colleague Françoise Maheu in their 2003 study. Animal research has shown that stress and anxiety can completely block the learning process.
Other researchers have noted a correlation between high cortisol levels and impaired memory and visual perception, as well as microstructural changes in the brain and smaller brain volume, particularly in women (Echouffo-Tcheugui et al., 2018). Lastly, the authors of a longitudinal study of some 500 elderly people observed a link between chronic stress and an increased risk of experiencing amnesic-type mild cognitive decline, a – potentially reversible – cognitive decline characterized, among other things, by memory loss and representing a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease (Katz et al., 2016).
As an antidote to daily stress, Ms. Lupien recommends taking cognitive micro-pauses as often as necessary, for example, by taking a walk just long enough to regain your composure… a sign that stress hormones will have diminished.
Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.