Stress and the Flight-or-Fight Response

The body uses many instinctive mechanisms designed to keep us alive. One of the most impressive is the ability to quickly become supercharged in times of extreme danger. Our ancestors would have regularly dealt with life-threatening situations, like being attacked by a large animal, and would have benefited greatly from this survival mechanism.

When our brain detects danger, it floods the body with a hormone called cortisol. This generally prompts the body to respond in one of three ways: we attack (fight), we run away (flight) or we remain completely still (freeze). These days we don’t come across life-threatening situations all that often, but the brain isn’t good at differentiating between sensations linked to an extreme physical threat and sensations linked to an extreme emotional threat. When we experience stress, shame, fear, anger and other negative emotions, our brain can interpret this as extreme danger. 

Everyone knows that strong emotional reactions can pop up in any situation, including the learning setting. A student might feel intimidated and afraid if a task is too difficult, embarrassed if a mistake is made in front of the class or frustrated if a new concept is hard to understand. They might even become enraged if they put effort into a learning task and still can’t grasp it.

Any of these experiences can trigger a flood of cortisol throughout the body. While this mechanism enables fast, effective action when there’s no time to stop and think, it produces an utterly ineffective response when the exact opposite is needed. In this state, taking the time to stop and think clearly is very hard to do. Research shows that high levels of cortisol can impede our ability to learn.

When a student finds it difficult to read, they’re likely to experience emotional distress. This can produce a stress reaction before a class has even started, further hindering the capacity to learn, and a vicious cycle forms that stops some students from learning to read. They fall further behind their peers and catching up can seem an impossible task.

It’s crucial to structure learning experiences in a way that avoids triggering this unhelpful cortisol reaction. Given the inconsistencies and complexities of the English language, and given struggling readers might have low self-esteem around their reading ability, it’s no simple task to support students toward becoming fluent readers without activating a stressful response.

This is an excerpt from a short book written by the founders of Readable English, Ann Fitts and Chris Stephen, titled “Readable English: Why Learning To Read English Is So Hard And How To Make It Easier”. You can access the entire book from the Readable English website.