America’ Stress: Outcomes and Opportunities

Whether you are worried about your performance at work, your students doing well on their next exam, being there for your children, meeting new people, or being a good partner to your loved one, everyone has experienced anxiety, uncertainty, and stress. They are a part of daily life, but their prevalence and severity differ person to person and time to time. Anxiety is a feeling of worry or unease typically about something with an uncertain outcome. This worry and uncertainty can cause stress, which can have a negative impact on behavior and health. Some stress is natural and even beneficial, however too much stress can negatively impact brain development and have long term consequences.

America is Stressed Out. Stress, anxiety, and uncertainty are even more rampant following the 2016 election. The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted an online survey with over 10,000 K-12 teachers, counselors, and administrators across the country. 90% of educators indicated that the school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have long-lasting impact. 80% described increased student anxiety and concern regarding the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

Stress and the Brain. When we are stressed, the limbic system kicks in. The limbic system includes:

· The hippocampus — involved in mood and emotional regulation as well as memory

· The amygdala — involved in emotion and motivation

· The hypothalamus — involved in producing stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol

· The prefrontal cortex — involved in regulating anxiety and making decisions

Short bursts of stress are natural and even beneficial, however strong and prolonged activation of the stress response results in toxic stress and too much cortisol production, which can negatively impact long-term learning, behavior, and health.

Chronic stress alters neural pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala, making us more reactive to negative events.

· Prolonged stress causes the hippocampus to shrink, negatively impacting memory

· The amygdala exhibits decreased emotional and mood regulation while increasing anxiety and PTSD-like behaviors (McEwen, Nasca, & Gray, 2016)

· You may see students:

o Having difficulty remembering what happened during the day

o Finding it more difficult to calm down and regulate their moods and emotions

o Fearful, self-conscious, hot-tempered, or apathetic students

o Clenched fists, blushing, or crying

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is involved in decision making, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and response inhibition, is also negatively impacted by chronic stress.

· PFC neurons debranch and dendrites shrink which results in cognitive rigidity, meaning you cannot adapt your approach and strategies as quickly and efficiently.

· You may also become more vigilant, looking out for additional stressful items.

· You may see loss of impulse control and self-regulatory behaviors in students, compromised decision making, or difficulty sustaining attention and work.

Thus chronic stress is a viscous cycle. Students’ attention is focused on searching for additional stressors, their memory is weakened except for emotionally charged or fear-inducing events, and they are more irritable and less able to regulate their emotions.

Brain Neuroplasticity Can Help Overcome Impact of Stress. Despite these negative effects, there is hope. One study found that four weeks of chronic stress negatively impacted prefrontal processing and attentional control, however these effects were reversible one month after the stress ended, highlighting the plasticity and resiliency of the PFC cells. Neuroplasticity means the brain is malleable, adaptive, and shaped by experience. Thus just as negative environments and experiences can negatively impact the brain, positive environments and experiences can positively impact the brain. Supportive relationships and stress reduction can heal the brain, and teachers can nurture students’ innate capacities for high performance.

Impact of Stress on Decision Making. Unsurprisingly, in addition to core cognitive functions, more complex functions such as decision making are also impacted by chronic stress. Risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress (Mather & Lighthall, 2012). Acute stress enhances learning about positive outcomes but impairs learning about negative outcomes of choices. It also amplifies gender differences in strategies during risky decisions, with males take more risks and females less risk under stress.

Impact on Genetics. In addition to these cognitive outcomes, stress can also impact genetics. Telomeres are long repetitive regions at the end of each chromosome in a strand of DNA. Along with the enzyme telomerase, they protect the ends of chromosomes from degrading or fusing with other chromosomes (Shaikh-Lesk, 2014). “A number of studies have linked stress with shorter telomeres, a chromosome component that’s been associated with cellular aging and risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer” (Lu, 2014). When telomeres are too diminished, they set the aging process in motion along with the associated health risks. The type and severity of stress determine how big the impact on telomeres is, with exposure to chronic early life stress having the most negative impact. One study also found that while cumulative stress has more impact on telomeres, short-term stress may also negatively impact telomere length (Mathur et al., 2016).

Stress Reduction

While chronic stress negatively impacts brain structure and function, stress reduction and positive environments hold promise to heal the brain. Acute and short-term stress are natural and to be expected, so we need to focus on reducing long-term and chronic stress.

There are several ways to buffer stress’s negative effects such as:

· Establishing and maintaining supportive, warm, and caring relationships

· Interactive and high-quality parenting, as well as caring relationships with adults in one’s life

· Establishing meaningful relationships with peers

· Regularly exercising

· Maintaining a healthy diet

· Getting regular sleep

· Laughing

· Practicing mindfulness and meditation

· Reducing uncertainty and thus anxiety and stress, by learning from personal experience, observational learning from others’ experiences, and broader cultural learning through cautionary tales and anecdotes (Weber & Johnson, 2008).

Helping Our Students Handle Stress. Additionally, as a teacher and school leader, you are in a unique position to help students develop positive behaviors and strategies to deal with stress. As a teacher, you can be mindful in your classroom and adjust practices to reduce student anxiety and stress, and as a school leader you can work to develop a warm, supportive, and nurturing school environment and encourage teachers to implement the following suggestions.

· Be clear about instructions

· Write down expectations for an assignment

· Present directions one step at a time so as not to overwhelm the child

· Provide more frequent feedback

· Step back and extend an extra measure of kindness

· Help the child find an adult they can talk to and form a warm, responsive relationship with


Lu, S. (2014). How chronic stress is harming our DNA. American Psychological Association.

Mather, M., & Lighthall, N. R. (2012). Risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 36–41.

Mathur et al. (2016). Perceived stress and telomere length: A systematic review, meta-analysis, and methodologic considerations for advancing the field. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 54, 158–169.

McEwen, B. S., Nasca, C., & Gray, J. D. (2016). Stress effects on neuronal structure: hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(1), 3–23.

Shaikh-Lesko, R. (2014). Telomeres show signs of early-life stress. The Scientist.

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2016). The Trump effect: The impact of the 2016 presidential election on our nation’s schools.

Weber, E. U., & Johnson, E. J. (2008). Decisions under uncertainty: Psychological, economic, and neuroeconomic explanations of risk preference. Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain, 127–144.