Stress and Cognitive Development

Seaward (2006) defined stress as “the inability to cope with a perceived or imagined threat to one’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptations” (p. 4).

Anxiety and stress have been identified as obstacles to both physical health and peak physical and mental performance (Noteboom, Barnholt, & Enoka, 2001). Ornish (1982) has noted several physical outcomes of chronic stress, such as blood pressure, heart disease, and compromised immune function (leading to further disease). When we experience such diseases, we cannot operate at our peak performance, including academic performance. Massey (1998) further identified five domains of healthy functioning that are affected by stress: “physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual” (p. 2). Examples of stress that affect both children and adolescents include:

Illness, injury, inadequate nutrition, and low levels of physical fitness (physical dimension); pressures to excel in academic and extra curricular activities, depression and anxiety (mental/emotional dimension); relational issues, peer pressure, and dysfunctional family lives (social dimension); and inability to find purpose in life. (p. 2)

Educators traditionally have sought to understand what links, if any, exist between children’s cognitive development and stress. Anecdotal evidence as well as research has indicated that such a relationship does exist. Retention, comprehension, and the potential to learn are all undermined by stress and anxiety. For example, “It is widely researched that too much stress and test anxiety can hinder an individual’s performance” (H. Larson et al., 2010, p. 14). H. Larson et al. examined the effect of test anxiety among third graders and used relaxation techniques as a treatment for test anxiety.

Lupien et al. (2005) investigated the effects of stress hormones on memory and cognition in a wide range of age groups and found that “a subset of subjects showed that those in the Increasing/High cortisol group (n = 6) had a 14% smaller hippocampal volume than those in the Decreasing/Moderate group (n = 5)” (p. 330). Paul, Elam, and Verhulst (2007) found that following a 6-week stress-reduction program, medical students “perceived the positive effects of increasing concentration and decreasing test anxiety, nervousness, and self-doubt during exams,” (p. 291) and “the findings were consistent with the knowledge of how increases in stress hormones can cause a range of cognitive and physical symptoms” (p. 291).

Students are able to both deliberately and spontaneously use more of their mental reserves when relaxed. This occurs due to the activity of brainwaves. McGreevey (2011) explained, “Brain cells use particular frequencies or waves to regulate the flow of information in much the same way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies” (para. 3).

Moments of inspiration, creativity, and a-ha! insights often occur in states of heightened relaxation. These moments enable students to extend beyond their ordinary capacities and aptitudes. This state has been called a relaxed-alert or alpha state. During the alpha state, brainwaves shift from the typical beta frequency of 13-39 cycles/second to the alpha frequency of 8 cycles/second. McGreevey (2011) commented that the alpha rhythm “is particularly active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain’s outmost layer, called the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information between brain regions” (para. 3).

According to Prichard and Taylor (1981), biofeedback research has suggested that creativity may be increased in the alpha/theta states. “Elmer and Alice Green at the Menninger Foundation and Stanley Krippner and Montague Ullman at Maimonidies Hospital in Brooklyn have conducted biofeedback research indicating that both creativity and telepathy may be enhanced through alpha/theta conditioning” (p. 127).