Anxious and fearful brains do not learn well

By Melissa Martin, Ph.D - Contributing Columnist

Think about the last time you felt anxious. Did your brain jump offline? Did you make illogical arguments? Did your gray matter scramble and ramble?

Anxiety and fear are natural human reactions and necessary biological functions. It’s part of an alarm system that’s activated whenever you perceive or confront danger or a threat.

However, too much anxiety and fear is not healthy for your brain. And continual overwhelming anxiety with panic attacks may lead to a mental health disorder.

Let’s review brain stuff. You have a thinking part in your brain. It’s called the cortex. The frontal lobe within the cortex is where logic and reasoning functions exist. You have a feeling part in your brain. Emotions are housed in two almond-shaped structures in an area called the limbic system.

Stressful events, high-pressure situations, and chaotic conversations can produce mega anxiety and fear reactions. When we feel distress, our brains prioritize survival. A flood of emotional messages wants to know, “Am I safe?” Blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration increase. The hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, pump through the body. And chronic activation of our anxiety/fear response can hinder the learning parts of the brain.

A child’s brain on anxiety. A big anxious feeling can overwhelm kids. She may push back, run away, or shut down. These reactions are called the fight, flight, or freeze response. Learning exits the building. Some students experience test anxiety and learning circuits are affected.

A teen’s brain on anxiety. The thinking lobe in the prefrontal cortex shuts down when a brain is in emotional strain and pain. Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel (2015) is a recommended book for parents and teachers.

An adult’s brain on anxiety. Adults can also be high-reactors to perceived or actual anxiety-provoking situations. The National Institute of Mental Health has a guide on anxiety disorders and the neurological processes.

The emotional brain highjacks the logical brain during anxious and fearful situations at school, at home, and in the community. Learning comes to a standstill.

In the past two decades, neuroimaging and brain-mapping research have provided information about educational models and optimal learning environments. Calmness and curiosity along with challenge and appropriate stimulation support learning. “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn,” surmised Benjamin Franklin.

How to Help Your Brain

The first step is to simply be aware of how your brain reacts to anxiety and fear. The only problem you can solve is a problem that you acknowledge and accept.

The second step is to make a plan to use before your brain responds like a fizzling firecracker. You can retrain the brain. The brain can unlearn and relearn. Diaphragm breathing, meditation, yoga, gentle massage, soothing music, and comforting self-talk activates the parasympathetic nervous system which slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and calms the mind.

The third step is to practice your plan when you are calm. Repetition is necessary. Then in an anxiety-provoking situation, the brain will leap into a calming action.

Reducing anxiety helps the prefrontal cortex to calm down. And then you will be able to absorb information, give feedback, and learn.

You only get one brain in this lifetime, so take care of it by managing anxiety and fear.

“All of imagination – everything that we think, we feel, we sense – comes through the human brain. And once we create new patterns in this brain, once we shape the brain in a new way, it never returns to its original shape,” writes Jay Walker.

By Melissa Martin, Ph.D

Contributing Columnist

Melissa Martin, Ph.D, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in southern Ohio.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in southern Ohio.