Today I want to dive deeper into our discussion of how stress can physically alter the brain and explain how long term exposure to stress can be toxic. In fact, the response of hormones and neuro-transmitters to habitual stress can damage the hippocampus.
The hippocampus, named for its resemblance to a seahorse, is a region deep within the brain which is integral to learning and memory. The hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to stress because of its abundance of glucocorticoid receptors. Glucocorticoid receptors are the site of cortisol binding. Hormones can’t be effective until they are bound to a receptor, so when the cortisol finds a glucocorticoid receptor, it gets to work.
Cortisol is rapidly becoming a household name. It is a stress hormone. More stress = more cortisol.
High levels of cortisol keep the body primed for fight-or-flight response which means, among other things, a decreased immune system. When we need it, this is an important redistribution of resources. But, too much can be toxic. Sustained, elevated cortisol levels have been linked to atrophy in the hippocampus. In other words, flooding that region with cortisol causes drowning; the brain cells there die.
With the hippocampus under attack, the potential for learning and developing new memories is diminished. You see, our emotions do influence our ability to learn.
As educators we wear many hats and have an increasing number of responsibilities. I hope that these details about the influence of stress on the brain will convince you that providing emotional wellness to your students is the foundation upon which learning occurs.