Anxiety: state and trait

It's important to note that a number of factors affect the way individuals cope with stress and anxiety and that some people are more internally prone to higher levels of negative stress. Anxiety can arise for many different reasons and the way individuals respond to stressful situations can vary enormously. Some people suffer from recognised anxiety disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Others might have specific fears (phobias) or a fear that arises in social situations (social anxiety). We can think of these differences as either situation specific (state) or something about the individual (trait). High scores on the Big 5 trait neuroticism would indicate trait anxiety, while anxiety directed towards a particular situation, such as taking a test, can be thought of as state anxiety (it's the situation that has triggered the anxiety rather than something internal to the individual). Indeed, test anxiety is a very specific form of anticipatory anxiety that arises in situations where our ability is being assessed in some formal way and I'll dedicate the final part of this chapter to a more detailed discussion of the impact of test anxiety on academic outcomes.

We, therefore, need to ensure that we remain mindful of this distinction. Individuals who are test anxious might also have more serious underlying trait anxiety that exacerbates the condition, while others might suffer from a more specific type of anxiety. I have already hinted at the impact of chronic stress on learning and general wellbeing and I now want to turn to the role anxiety plays in the learning process and why it can both enhance and inhibit.

Anxiety and learning

Cortisol is very much a double-edged sword. In one respect it positively impacts health and wellbeing but on the other can damage it. The long-term effects of elevated cortisol levels are most certainly negative, with chronic stress during early adulthood associated with memory problems later in life. The relationship between cortisol and memory and learning is a complex one and is still not fully understood but we do know that small bursts of cortisol can be helpful when laying down new memories and high levels can negatively impact recall. This is because cortisol can have a toxic effect on the hippocampus, an area of the brain vital to the consolidation (or formation) of new memories.

Research has discovered that inducing stress in participants by raising their cortisol levels actually benefits memory consolidation. However, increasing cortisol levels during retrieval impairs recall. In a study published in 2013, researchers decided to investigate the role of naturally occurring levels of cortisol (as opposed to inducing higher levels) to see how these natural levels impacted memory. They accomplished this by taking saliva samples from more than one thousand volunteers and subjecting them to a memory test at three data collection points: before memory encoding (the point at which we form new memories), between encoding and recall and after recall.

The memory test included a number of pictures that were either emotionally positive, negative or neutral. Volunteers viewed the pictures and classified them in relation to emotional arousal (or valence) and were then asked to recall the pictures after 10 minutes and 20 hours. It was discovered that volunteers with a greater decrease in cortisol levels during memory retrieval had better recall of the pictures regardless of valence and time duration. The study found no association between cortisol level and memory encoding (Ackermann, Hartmann, Papassotiropoulos, de Quervain & Rasch, 2013).

Another problem is that the same areas involved in these memory processes are also responsible for keeping an eye on cortisol levels by sending signals to the hypothalamus to hold back when levels become too high. This means that continued high levels of cortisol will eventually destroy the brain cells whose job it is to keep it in check, leading to poor cortisol regulation as well as memory difficulties.

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