Retention, comprehension and potential to learn are all undermined by stress and anxiety. We are all familiar with the term “test anxiety,” and have all experienced that feeling of not being able to concentrate because of stress.

How stress affects brain performance

Stress hormones affect our memory and cognition. When we get upset, our cortisol levels elevate in the blood, and the part of our brain in which learning and memory resides — the hippocampus — starts dumping neurons as a reaction to stress. By getting smaller, our hippocampus negatively impacts our memory and learning capacity. Therefore, increases in stress hormones can cause a range of deleterious cognitive and physical symptoms.

When the brain is relaxed, more blood goes to the prefrontal cortex and we can use more of our mental reserves. The prefrontal cortex is where our critical and abstract thinking lives, and it is typically the captain of your ship; however, under stress, the mental activity of the prefrontal cortex slows down and the amygdala, where your fight-or-flight response exists, gets larger and takes over your mental operations. Therefore, when the brain is stressed, you are thinking more emotionally and less critically. As a result, your decision-making is colored by your fight-or-flight response. Even a bad night’s sleep can stress the body enough to raise cortisol levels in your blood. So, a child who is worried or not sleeping well, or a business person who is about to close a deal, are both at a disadvantage when compared to their counterparts who have had a good night’s sleep and have a full-functioning prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala.

The importance of stress management

When stress is managed through relaxation techniques, the activity of our brain cells use frequencies similar to that of a radio station, thus, information can be broadcasted through these particular frequencies. Moments of inspiration, creativity and “a-ha!” insights often occur in such states of relaxation. These moments allow students to extend beyond their ordinary tendencies and aptitude. This state has been called a relaxed-alert or alpha state.

Stress and learning

Everything we learn, everything we read, everything we do, everything we understand and everything we experience counts on the hippocampus to function correctly. When the body endures ongoing stress, cortisol affects the rate at which neurons are either added or subtracted from the hippocampus. This can be a tremendous assault on learning. When the neurons are attacked by cortisol, the hippocampus loses neurons and is reduced in size. Because cortisol enlarges the amygdala while it shrinks the hippocampus, your emotions become stimulated and your capacity to gather information is inhibited. Because the amygdala overrides the prefrontal cortex, stress places your critical thinking at risk, and can damage your motor abilities. This is all part of the fight-or-flight syndrome where your reactive need for survival overrides your capacity to critically think.

Stress, also, enlarges the amygdala, while it shrinks the hippocampus. This impairs your ability to learn, store information, access memory, focus and think critically and creatively. This is called cognitive dysfunction. Loss of sleep, anxiety and worry can all elevate cortisol levels and cause the same syndrome to occur. Short-term memory loss in many cases is nothing more than a reaction to stress, as is a challenged immune system. You may have recognized that some of these symptoms are prevalent in Alzheimer’s disease, where elevated cortisol levels have been found. In fact, when Alzheimer’s patients are given a stable, small dose of cortisol, they show cognitive impairment. Even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients exhibit a stress profile, including a reduced hippocampal volume.

Stress management tools

So, what can you do to help your children and yourself manage stress? There are simple tools that can help you recognize, acknowledge, and remediate the damage done to your body from stress.

These stress-management tools include:

  1. Exercise
  2. Meditation
  3. Yoga – Chi-Gong
  4. Talk therapy
  5. Psychotherapy and counseling
  6. Music
  7. Counseling when needed

If you don’t confront the effect of stress on your life, neither you nor your children will be as healthy as you could be or as happy as you should be. All it takes is a little time in instead of time out.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.