Cortisol is both the unsung hero and silent villain in our bodies. It's like a dynamic double-edged sword, both our guardian angel and a formidable foe. On one hand, it's the unsung hero that's absolutely essential for our survival, ready to swoop in whenever danger lurks. But on the other, it can be a relentless troublemaker, causing havoc in our lives.
When we find ourselves in the midst of a threat or a stressful situation, our brain sounds the alarm. It's like a secret signal sent to our adrenal glands, instructing them to unleash cortisol into our bloodstream. Suddenly, our body goes into superhero mode. Our heart rate surges, our senses sharpen, and we're geared up to tackle whatever comes our way. Cortisol is our built-in alarm system, our very own "fight or flight" response.
But here's where it gets tricky: our modern lives are filled with a never-ending parade of stressors. From perceived risk to reality, the constant hustle and bustle keeps cortisol on high alert and that's when the trouble begins. High cortisol levels that persist over time can lead to a host of issues, like anxiety, depression, unwanted weight gain, and even disturbances in our precious sleep patterns.
So how can harnessing our understanding of cortisol help us deign pedagogically and scientifically sound reintegration plans for learners?
A story: Learning from our ancestors
I recently listened to a fascinating podcast by Dr Tara Swart Bieber and Steven Bartlett and I loved the notion of when you struggle with explaining the science behind something to relate it to ancestral history instead.
So here it goes...
Back in the days of our earliest ancestors, our survival depended on our ability to stay close to our caregivers and social groups. It was literally a matter of life and death. So over many years, our brains evolved to be highly attuned to social dynamics and threats. When a member of the tribe felt emotionally unsafe, their body would release cortisol to prepare them to navigate potential dangers.
When a child experiences emotional distress related to school – be it bullying, academic pressure, or other social issues – cortisol levels can skyrocket. This not only leads to immediate feelings of 'fight or flight' but, over time if not reduced, can lead to chronic stress, burn out and avoidance behaviors.
Let's imagine I lived many years ago and faced a dangerous situation in the wild, like a big, scary animal. When that happens, my body, releases cortisol like an emergency response. But here's the thing: the cortisol doesn't stay for a long time. It's there just for the time when I'd need to fight the danger or run away.
This is how I find it easiest to explain why school avoidance happens. It's down to a young person's perception that school is danger and the body's resulting chemical response.
Cells that fire together, wire together - Donald Hebb
Some of you will be familiar with the Hebbian Learning Theory. For those who aren't, the above quote offers, in my opinion, the best starting point to explaining why apathy towards learning and education co-exists with school avoidance. Firstly, as a society we need to realise how much emphasis we place on a physical school building representing the place where learning happens.
Think about constructs such as schools setting 'homework'. Many learners, see this are re-enforcing the notion that, without input from school, learning doesn't happen at home.
When a learner finds themselves in a constant state of cortisol elevation at school, it's akin to perceiving the school environment, the very place meant for learning, as a realm of extreme danger. Over time, these neural circuits responsible for processing the concepts of 'danger' and 'school,' and even more unsettlingly, 'learning,' start firing together so frequently that they begin to hardwire into the brain.
In essence, the brain begins to form a neural connection that deeply embeds the idea that school or learning itself are perceived as dangers that must be avoided at all costs to ensure survival. This intricate interplay between stress hormones, emotional responses, and neurological wiring highlights the significant impact of chronic stress on a learner's perception of their educational environment.
At Education Boutique, we see learners at all levels of this hardwiring journey. It is this concept that underpins our very service of expertly matching in-person educators to re-engage and re-integrate learners back into suitable learning settings.
Did you know?
Whilst cortisol can initially boost our cognitive performance, there are a whole host of other difficulties that prolonged cortisol exposure gives rise to.
- Hippocampal Shrinkage: Prolonged exposure to high cortisol can lead to the shrinkage of the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory formation. This can hinder our ability to encode and store new information effectively.
- Impaired Memory Retrieval: Cortisol can interfere with our ability to retrieve stored memories. It can make it harder to access information when we need it, leading to forgetfulness and memory lapses.
- Reduced Attention and Focus: High cortisol levels can also affect our attention and focus. We may find it more challenging to concentrate on tasks or pay attention to details, which can hinder our ability to learn and retain information.
- Interference with Neurotransmitters: Cortisol can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting the ease of communication between brain cells. This can further impair cognitive function and memory.
Top tips to reduce cortisol
- Mindfulness Meditation: When you practice mindfulness, especially in nature you activate brain regions associated with relaxation and decrease activity in areas linked to stress.
- Adequate Sleep: Sleep is a critical factor in regulating cortisol. Neuroscientists have reported that the process of the brain flushing out toxins requires around 8 hours and 15 minutes of sleep.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity is another powerful tool to lower cortisol levels. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which act as natural stress reducers. Also other oxytocin stimulating activities help to reduce cortisol.
- Social Support and Connection: Building and maintaining strong social connections can have a significant impact on your brain's stress response. When you engage in positive social interactions, your brain releases oxytocin, a hormone that counteracts the effects of cortisol.
- Deep Breathing and Relaxation Techniques: Deep breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or biofeedback, can influence the brain's stress response system. They activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which opposes the stress response and can lead to a decrease in cortisol levels.
About the author
As a qualified teacher, Lucy Alexandra Spencer founded Education Boutique with the hope of impacting education globally. She now travels the world as a trusted education adviser, winning Female Entrepreneur of the Year at the Thames Valley Awards 2021 and, most notably, joining the Eteach team in 2021. She is thrilled Education Boutique has become the tutoring element within the Eteach Group and feels so lucky to be able to combine her passions for teaching and educational consultancy in this dynamic partnership.