The Stress Factor

This month’s Scientific American includes a report by three Yale professors of psychiatry on the effects of stress.  As an educator who works regularly with students preparing for a variety of tests, (SSAT’s, SAT’s, ACT’s, etc.) I continually witness the stress that these exams induce.  In addition to mastering the content of these tests, students need to learn how to combat the “freezing” or “choking” that they may feel.

A few facts about brain structure can demonstrate the interplay between the logical and emotional parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, the region immediately behind the forehead, is the logic center. It is the most highly evolved brain structure in humans and accounts for 30% of the brain’s structure.  It also matures very slowly, usually after the teen years.  The cortex allows people to think abstractly, to focus, and to stay on task.  It is also the locus of short term “working memory,” which is so important during test-taking.

The emotional part of the brain is located in the brain stem, located at the base of the brain closer to the neck. It contains the amygdala, which controls the output of neurochemicals during stress. High levels of neurotransmitters like “norepinephrine and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex switch on receptors that open channels that disconnect the links between prefrontal neurons.”  Thus, logical thinking becomes inhibited. At times like these, students cannot “think straight.”

Developing strategies to control stress is crucial not only for test-taking, but for a healthy and productive life.  “Many labs have shown that behavioral strategies such as relaxation, deep breathing, and meditation can reduce the stress response.”

So, in addition to focusing on academic content, students should practice relaxation techniques. Working under simulated testing conditions like reduced time can induce some stress. In addition to breathing exercises, students can re-establish control of the prefrontal cortex by taking a few moments to recite simple math facts to themselves or by recalling a calming scene. Certain smells (like vanilla) also have a soothing effect.  Adding behavioral strategies to test practice can yield positive results and can help test takers “stay in the zone.”

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