This is your brain on stress.

I am a person who prides myself on being responsive and reliable. This requires being organized and on-task. But this week, I am tired. I am stressed. I am not myself. I have made mistakes that have made me shake my head. Here is just a sample of some of the things I’ve done this week:

  • I picked up my phone and called myself.
  • I logged in to Zoom to present a webinar at 1pm and was heartbroken when nobody showed up. At 1:04 I realized the session started at 2:00.
  • I forgot to attend a webinar hosted by a colleague for which I had agreed to co-host.
  • During a webinar, I referred to a scholar by the wrong name multiple times.
  • I have completely missed email replies.
  • I have no recollection of ever seeing a Google Doc referred to by my colleagues and then when I found it, I saw that I had made contributions to it.

Each of these moments left me feeling shameful. You know that feeling right? That flood of yucky, warm emotion that overcomes you and makes you feel about an inch tall. It sucks.

But here I am, sharing these mistakes with all of you. Why would I do that? Because within this difficult, frustrating context is an incredibly powerful learning opportunity.

Interrupted learning

The human brain with "i + a heart" placed above it and the quote "Cognition and emotion are two sides of the same coin." Zaretta Hammond

If you find yourself making more mistakes than usual, it’s because you’re human. As humans, we are wired to react physiologically to stressful situations – it is one of the reasons our species has survived over time. Upon detecting a threat, your brain releases cortisol, a hormone, into your bloodstream that results in physical changes (like increased heart rate and blood pressure) that are intended to prepare you to flee your dangerous situation. This is often referred to as fight or flight.

The problem is that our brain does not distinguish between a crouched lion preparing to eat you for lunch and the stress of a global pandemic. The day-in and day-out stressors of COVID-19 have us simmering in a stew of chronic stress. And that is why we have trouble sleeping and concentrating, why we make poor decisions, why we toggle between emotions, and why even after a good night sleep we wake up feeling exhausted. Thackery Brown, researcher at Stanford’s Memory Lab, explains, “It’s kind of like our brain is pushed into a more low-level thought-process state.”

Our students, of course, are in this with us. Students are now contained to their homes too. The home (for those who are fortunate to have a home) has become a site of learning, parenting, educating children, working, and a remote control center for caring for high-risk loved ones, requiring us to shun our instincts to get close and hug them.

Empathy: the greatest teacher

Empathy is often described as seeing things through the eyes of another person. But I think that’s not right. Empathy is feeling things that others feel. While that isn’t always possible, it certainly is right now. We are feeling what our students are feeling. And they need to hear that.

Recently, I attended an excellent webinar hosted by Luke J. Wood and Frank Harris about equity-minded and culturally-affirming teaching in the online environment (here is the webinar archive). Dr. Wood said something that has really stuck with me. He said, “As you grant yourself grace for expectations, be sure to grant the same grace to your students.” I hope each of us remembers that thought. It is my hope that the mistakes our students make will be met by their instructors with kindness and compassion, as so many of mine have been by my own colleagues.

Connection is our antidote.

Below is an archive of a webinar I recently presented for the California Community College system about Humanizing Remote Instruction. In the archive, you will see a few specific practices to consider to ensure your students feel your presence at a distance and have opportunities to connect.

4 Comments to “This is your brain on stress.”

  1. This article makes me think about how our genetic make up driven Impulses and reactions are not part of our conscious thought process. Even tough our environment looks different than an open savannah where we can be exposed to life threatening dangers, our communities, even our own neighborhoods, have turned into very uncertain arenas where dangers and anxieties are becoming the norm. I have experienced the destructive effects of stress in my own body lately . It caused my immune system to drop unintentionally bringing me a lot of inconsistencies and pain. Makes me wonder how many more people may be in a similar situation?


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