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Sally Tanski

Full Potential Group

Leadership Development Facilitator and Coach

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Brain fitness: handling stress in a learning environment


If your learners are stressed, they will struggle to process new information, highlights Sally Tanski, Leadership Development Facilitator and Coach for Full Potential Group. Below she offers six strategies to improve brain fitness and increase learning.

My previous article looked at increasing our level of neuro-agility – our brain fitness – which enables us to learn quicker and perform better, and the drivers that impact our levels of brain fitness. One of those is stress and how it affects our ability to learn and how we can mitigate its effects.

Many of us recognise the feelings associated with being stressed – pounding heart, fast shallow breathing, cold hands and feet, being ‘on alert’ and tuned into our environment and noticing risks around us.  Our amazing brains and bodies have developed a remarkable way to deal with stressful situations and make sure we are fully equipped physically and mentally to respond to the threat – either to attack, or to escape, the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism.

In simple terms, our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and oxygen and energy-rich blood pours into our muscles as the liver releases more sugar into the bloodstream to fuel action. A key element in all this is the stress hormone, cortisol, which keeps our blood sugar and blood pressure high, to enable fight or flight. The National Geographic video, Portrait of a Killer, illustrates this.

All of this was extremely helpful in times when our threats involved defending ourselves against physical attack, competing for scarce resources and hunting animals for food. But in the 21st century, the threats we perceive at work that cause stress are subtler, less tangible and require brain power, not physical power, to address. Yet our bodies respond in the same way now as they have always done. To make matters worse, these responses and the cocktail of chemicals they produce in our bloodstream damage our brain power.

How does stress damage brain fitness?

  • In a stressful situation, our non-dominant brain hemisphere ‘switches off,’ meaning the functions of that hemisphere are lost, impacting our performance. So you may notice that you find it harder than normal to deal with detailed facts and information. Maybe you become more vocal and expressive than normal? Or perhaps your natural reserve increases to the point where your participation in activities almost stops and you withdraw?

  • Studies have shown that cortisol damages the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is responsible for memory. Although we need some cortisol, too much is definitely a bad thing.

  • The ‘amygdala hijack’ – when we are stressed, this region of our brains, responsible for emotions, becomes over-activated. In this state, new information can’t pass through it to other areas of the brain to process it rationally and retain it so information can’t ‘get in.’

It’s impossible to avoid situations that cause stress, so to mitigate the damaging effects of it on our brain’s functions we need to find ways of coping successfully with it.

Brain fitness – reduce stress and increase learning

As we know, for some people, learning – and being in a learning environment – is stressful. A recent study shows that stress can be ‘catching’, meaning it may affect the people around you and cause them to be stressed too.

To help reduce the stress levels that can be often found within a learning environment, try the six strategies outlined below: 

1. Develop enhanced self awareness

Knowing your own ‘triggers’ for stress and recognising its signs will help you manage it. Notice when you feel stressed and pause – ask yourself what’s causing the stress? How big an issue is it really?  How can you or others deal with it?

Increased self awareness is a key building block of emotional intelligence, which helps you relate more successfully to others, and reduces stress in relationships. Developing your intrapersonal skills and awareness of others will help you understand how they react to stress and respond more effectively to their behaviour.

2. Be adaptable and creative in your approach to learning

Recognise that some activities in the learning environment (for example, presenting, participating in role plays, demonstrations) are so stressful for some people that they can’t learn from them. Offer other ways people can learn, such as through observation and giving feedback, that will be more effective for them.

3. Have fun!

Laughter is a great way of reducing stress, but studies show that while healthy children may laugh as much as 400 times per day, adults tend to laugh only 15 times per day.

Judy Willis, a neuroscientist and teacher, reminds us of the power of joyful learning, and how “the highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and "aha" moments of insight and creative innovation are more likely to occur….where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning”. Think of ways to incorporate fun, humour and the child-like joy of curiosity and discovery into your learning.

4. Explore mindfulness

This is the process of bringing your attention to the moment, eliminating distracting thoughts about the past and the future, which can be developed through meditation. Mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses.

Many large organisations such as Apple, Google, Deutsche Bank and Proctor & Gamble have now implemented mindfulness programmes. There are many online guides and apps to help you learn. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Spend time (five minutes) each day doing nothing – and paying attention to what you notice in the inner silence – pay attention to your senses – how warm/cold is it, what background noise can you hear, what smells are there?

  • Focus on walking slowly and feeling your feet connect to the ground.

  • Before getting on with the next task, pause and be fully present in the moment. Celebrate what you’ve just finished and be ready to focus fully on the next thing. Build periods of mindful reflection into a learning event to help people consolidate their learning.

5. Develop better time management skills

When we don’t manage our time well, we end up feeling like we have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, causing stress which can lead to missed deadlines… and more stress!

Take control: clarify priorities and plan accordingly, build in realistic time for preparation and include some flexibility so you can respond to changes. Help others by being clear about when tasks need to be finished and offer guidance on likely completion time.

6. Use music to help promote relaxation

In The Mozart Effect, Don Campbell shows that our heart rates speed up or slow down to match the music we hear. Baroque music, with its typical 60 beats per minute, is known to be particularly effective in enabling concentration and retention as it encourages alpha brain wave patterns, which create a more integrated state ideal for whole brain learning.

In a three-year study, students whose classes include baroque music not only enjoyed the classes more but found their learning less challenging. Pieces by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are all great examples of baroque music – consider how you could use these in the learning environment.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” By improving our brain fitness and understanding of our own unique neuro-agility we can help to achieve that.


Author Profile Picture
Sally Tanski

Leadership Development Facilitator and Coach

Read more from Sally Tanski

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