How does stress affect learning?

4 August 2021

a stressed student during a revision session. 

Feelings of stress are common when learning. From struggling to get your head around a certain concept or theory to worrying about an upcoming exam or practical test, just as in all aspects of life, when it comes to learning, general anxiety is common during periods of intense study.

While a lot of stress can create an obstacle and be detrimental to your development, it’s interesting to consider how a little stress can actually help motivate you to study, aiding memory formation and improving information retention. 

However, how exactly does stress affect learning and memory? At what point does stress start to inhibit learning? And how can stress play an important role in the ways we study?

How does stress affect learning and memory?

Whether you’re studying for a university degree or you are training for a specific role, such as a financial advisor, higher education courses typically involve a lot of learning. With coursework deadlines and exams peppered throughout your time as a student, designed to assess how you are progressing, it’s common to feel stressed or even a little overwhelmed at certain points. However, to what extent does this stress affect your ability to learn and remember information.

Well, to put it simply, acute stress over a period of time can impact upon the way our brain processes and stores memories, which in turn can negatively affect how we retain information and learn. Indeed, according to 2016 research carried out by Stockholm University, stress can directly affect our abilities to create short-term memories, meaning it is more difficult to retain new information and keep it ‘close at hand’, inhibiting our natural learning processes. 

Why stress inhibits learning

When you are stressed during a specific event or task – when attempting to revise for a university final exam or an important test as part of your mortgage adviser course, for example – humans tend to have more difficulty accurately recalling details of that event or task at a later date. Just as witnesses to traumatic events, such as murders, assaults and terrorist attacks, struggle to accurately remember the details of the event later down the line due to stress – leading to eye-witness testimonies being infamously unreliable – storing information from a textbook or computer screen can be just as difficult to recall in a test of exam if you were feeling stressed while revising.

This is backed up by research published in the academic journal Science of Learning in 2016. Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe of the University of Hamburg note that, although a certain level of stress around the time of learning may have the ability to actually enhance memory formation – a claim we will come on to – generally speaking, stress and anxiety ‘markedly impairs memory retrieval’. This can lead to problems when it comes to recalling what has been ‘learnt’ under stress during exams, tests and other forms of assessment. 

It follows then, that extensive research does actually indicate that the optimal mental state for learning is a relaxed and stress-free one. This is to say, when we feel safe and are in a chilled environment, our brains can stop wasting energy on ‘self-preservation’ which manifests itself in the form of feelings of stress, and spend more energy on forming quality memories that store information that can be easily retained and remembered when required.  

Why is stress important to study?

While we have explored the reasons why high levels of stress can negatively affect your ability to learn, as we briefly touched upon above, there are also those who believe that ‘small doses’ of stress can actually enhance memory formation and aid learning. This is to say, in certain situations, small pangs of stress can actually work to focus your mind and help you to accomplish tasks more efficiently.

In its simplest form, stress is essentially an internal warning system linked with our inherent   fight-or-flight response. Chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol are released into the body when stressed, which, over a short period of time, can help to sharpen our focus and allow memories to be formed more quickly than usual. Researchers also believe that some forms of short-term stress can even help to strengthen our immune systems. In this regard, a manageable amount of stress over a short period of time – a few days before an exam or a deadline, for example – can help us learn and develop. However, it is still important to highlight that, as explored above, too much stress – whether that’s crippling anxiety or regular stress you are dealing with over a prolonged period of time – can be detrimental to learning.

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