Primed for Learning: Improving Cognitive Function by Managing Stress

While we may not be able to control our initial response to stress, we can learn to quickly assess the true gravity of it, and employ our rational minds to recover more quickly. This is cognitive resilience—a powerful skill for enabling effective learning.

Employees spend a lot of time under stress—from work and finances to family and health—and it is an enormous impediment to learning. No matter whether an individual is trying to learn in a classroom-based setting, training on the job, or simply learning-by-doing to improve their work, stress interferes with success.

Stress reactions, which take place in the midbrain structures such as the amygdala, are incompatible with learning because learning requires the executive function of the prefrontal cortex. Multiple studies have shown that learning is impaired by both long- and short-term stress.

A study by Susan Vogel and Lars Schwabe, published in the journal, Nature, explains that when the fight, flight, or freeze response is activated by stress, brain regions critical for learning and memory are rapidly and negatively impacted. Stress impacts encoding (or committing information to memory), retrieval, and updating of information (Vogel, Susan and Lars Schwabe. Nature npj Science of Learning (2016) 1, 16011; doi:10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.1

While one solution is to seek to reduce stress at work, it isn’t possible to eliminate stress for everyone all the time. So how can leaders improve learning outcomes in realistic (often stressful) conditions?

One effective way is to train habits for managing stress. Habitual response is easily retrieved under stress. For example, the response protocols drilled into emergency responders allow them to proceed with confidence even under severe stress. According to the study by Vogel and Shwabe: “[T]he negative effects of stress on memory retrieval may be counteracted to some extent by thoroughly and repeatedly practicing useful routines that can be recalled rather automatically. This may be especially relevant for the training of correct actions during emergency situations. For instance, given that flexible memory recall and knowledge application is hindered under stress, pilots or physicians should be trained extensively in the correct routines they should apply in stressful emergency situations. If these procedures are automatized, it is much more likely they can actually be retrieved and translated to behavior.”

Memorization of precise job-related procedural routines is not necessary for many jobs and doesn’t solve the more general problem of the impact of stress on learning. However, learning a routine that shifts us more quickly out of stress response provides the cognitive resilience needed. Following a routine lowers cortisol and other stress-related chemicals in the brain and helps to transition from the stress response of the mid-brain to the rational, executive function of the frontal lobe.

Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted, “Learning an automatic response protocol, what we call a ‘trigger script,’ is the first step to overcoming an amygdala hijack. Effective cognitive management is essential for mitigating stress and returning to productive thinking and action” (Eric McNulty, PhD. Fron correspondence Jan., 8 2020).

Training to Manage Stress and Enable Learning

Stressful events are a normal part of life, but we sometimes overreact to perceived threats as if they were life-endangering when, in fact, we’re perfectly safe. While we may not be able to control our initial response to stress, we can learn to quickly assess the true gravity of it, and employ our rational minds to recover more quickly. This is cognitive resilience—a powerful skill for enabling effective learning.

One reason people spend so much time in stress reaction is that they don’t know how to shift out of it. Identifying stress and emotional reactions and responding in ways that help to shift into a more productive mindset are skills we can learn. If we learn them like emergency responders learn their action protocols, we enable ourselves to quickly employ a set of procedures that will jettison stress and facilitate rational, creative frontal-lobe thinking and learning. Follow this three-step approach:

Step 1: Recognize stress response when it happens.        

Everyone has their own way of responding to stress, but there are recognizable patterns of behavior that allow individuals to identify when they’re reacting. One example is the fight, flight, or freeze response. Any individual can respond with any of the three depending upon the situation. That said, we all have a “signature” or “go-to” response that is our most common reaction.

Fight, flight, and freeze (sometimes called triple F) are basic, automatic responses to stress. When individuals are suddenly in this kind of reaction (referred to as an “amygdala hijack”), brain activity is redirected from the frontal lobe to the amygdala in the midbrain. In order to get back to clear, rational thinking, we have to end the hijack. The first step in doing so is to recognize what’s happening. Some people are able to easily identify their most common stress response based on the descriptions below. Others find they can figure it out by observing themselves with these descriptions in mind:

Fight reactions are other-directed and potentially aggressive. People who generally respond this way tend to identify external blame for a problem, and their instinct is to proactively seek to eliminate the source of threat. They may feel anger and physically they want to move toward the threat in an attempt to squelch it.

The flight response also compels us to move. In this case, we seek to move away from the threat. In flight response, individuals think thoughts like, “I have to get out of here.” If you’re stressed out in a meeting and your eyes flit repeatedly toward the conference room door, that’s a flight response. 

Freeze responses, in contrast, do not propel us into movement. People in freeze response often even hold their breath. Gasping and bringing a hand to your mouth is a freeze response related to holding breath. People experiencing the freeze response often feel unable to make a decision or think clearly. They are sort of “on hold” for some period of time.

Identifying our responses under stress is an act of metacognition (thinking about thinking). It’s a process by which we gain self-awareness about what’s happening in our own minds. In order to productively shift out of stress, we have to first identify what’s going on. When someone feels stressed and identifies their particular stress reaction (for example, “I’m in flight mode”), they have positioned themselves to move and get out of amygdala hijack.

Step 2: Employ a shifting tool.

There are several techniques individuals can learn to move out of mid-brain stress response activity and into productive frontal-lobe thinking

  • Breathe: Breathing deeply signals to the brain that you are safe. Paying attention to your breath brings you into the present moment. This is a helpful physical response to counteract short, shallow breath (common with fight and flight reactions), or holding breath (common with the freeze reaction). Calming body and mind helps to bring the frontal lobe back online.
  • Curiosity: Taking a curious position vis-à vis-the threat at hand can shift thinking to be more rational and productive. Asking questions about what’s happening and why are good ways to start to use the mind differently and more productively.
  • Multiple Perspectives: Including curiosity, this is a frontal-lobe activity. By simply asking, “What would (specific) other people think?” we can shift our thinking. Create a go-to list of people whose perspectives you can imagine under stress—your mother, your significant other, even a celebrity.
  • Humor: Sometimes tricky, but potentially highly effective, humor is a great antidote to stress.

Employing one or more of the these shifting tools will move cognitive activity to the frontal lobe. Individuals will feel calmer and be better able to develop creative solutions and make rational decisions. They will enable all phases of learning from encoding information to recalling and updating information effectively.

Step 3: Strengthen neural pathways.

With practice, recognizing stress response and employing tools to diffuse it become habitual. This happens because repeating the process strengthens the neural pathways involved. The “bridge” from the amygdala to the frontal lobe becomes stronger, and over time, the transition becomes easier and easier to the point of becoming automatic in many situations.

By learning to manage stress and regain effective cognition, learners can function more productively, whether they’re encoding new information or trying to recall what they’ve learned.

Facilitating Effective Learning in Groups

Not only can accessing a productive mindset for learning be taught at the individual level, the skills also can be applied by instructors or managers who want to help a class, group, or team to function more effectively together.

When leaders or instructors are aware of the dramatic impact stress has on learning, they can actively pursue methods of reducing environmental stress (such as uncomfortable physical conditions), as well as social stress.

Many people are easily stressed by social interactions, so creating psychological safety is important to reducing stress for any group of employees, whether they are working together short or long term. The fundamentals of good group dynamics rest on individuals’ abilities to manage stress for themselves, as well as their ability to help others feel safe.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson says leaders need to show humility, curiosity, and fallibility in order to create psychologically safe space for others. She further emphasizes the importance of candid feedback and offers this advice: “Ask people directly, ‘What are you seeing out there? I need to hear from you. What ideas do you have? What help can I offer?’ And when I ask a question that’s a real question, you know a genuine question. And then when I listen carefully to the response, I’m creating a moment—and hopefully more—of psychological safety. I’m saying I’m genuinely interested and maybe what you have to say is a little bit threatening, and you’re reluctant to say it, but I’m giving you that room to do it” (

The basic principles of managing individual cognitive effectiveness are paralleled in groups—we need curiosity, multiple perspectives at the table, mindful presences (such as paying attention to the breath), and a dose of humor when appropriate. This applies to work groups, classroom learning, and one-on-one interrelations between instructor and students and between peers.

Learning requires successful stress management because cognitive performance is significantly hampered by stress. When learners and leaders build fundamental understanding about how the mind works and how to manage stress to create cognitive resilience, learning will improve dramatically.

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Lucy English, Ph.D., is the VP Research of meQuilibrium. She has 15 years of experience helping major employers create people strategies to meet business goals and become employers-of-choice. She conducts research on how to best support employees to be successful at work and in life outside of work. She serves as an advisor on human capital management strategy across industries with major national and multinational employers.


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