Manual Memories: The Guardian of the Heart

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Adrian Wells, a professor of clinical and experimental psychopathology at the University of Manchester, agrees. This view is backed by recent research showing that the way we think about stress can also determine its effects. In one study, a group of volunteers were given a series of anxiety-inducing tasks: singing karaoke sober, in a laboratory setting , giving a speech and completing a difficult maths problem.

Those who reframed their stress as excitement performed significantly better on all the tasks.

For someone weighing up whether to apply for a job or take part in a race, say, the findings are an encouraging reminder that risks can open up rewarding opportunities. There is growing evidence that when stress is extreme or unrelenting the health consequences can be significant. Stress increases blood pressure and temporarily makes the blood stickier and more likely to clot, meaning that, over prolonged periods, it can raise the risk of heart disease.

Scientists are also investigating the link between stress and type 2 diabetes.


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Recent studies have confirmed the connection; Japanese men working excessive overtime were more likely to become diabetic, for instance. However, it it not yet clear whether stress itself, or other lifestyle factors such as diet, lack of exercise and drinking alcohol, are to blame. Under normal circumstances, the stress response is designed to be self-limiting: a momentary surge of biological activity that quickly dissipates.

This relies on a precisely choreographed sequence of hormone levels rising and falling by the right amount in the right order. Adrenaline triggers the release of immune cells, while cortisol, which lags behind, dampens down immune activity, bringing the body back to baseline. When people are relentlessly exposed to stress, though, this complex and finely balanced sequence can start to go awry.

Similar findings have been made in people who are long-term caregivers and in those who had suffered serious trauma as children. The theory is intriguing as it ties in with the recent discovery that inflammation in the body can have negative effects on mental health. It also challenges the traditional belief that the brain is sealed off from the rest of the body by what is known as the blood-brain barrier.

Increasingly, scientists are showing links between mental and physical health. Understanding better this connection could open up new opportunities for treatments targeting immune activity and could even make it possible to intervene before depression occurs in people at risk. Scientists are also discovering that not everyone responds to stress in the same way. Sex hormones interact with stress hormones, which could explain why stress appears to manifest itself differently in men and women.

Scientists at Rockefeller University in New York found that after prolonged stress, the brains of male and female rats began to rewire in subtly different ways. However, in the male animals these connections did not change, while links to other brain areas became less functional. Scientists are still trying to work out how such changes in brain circuitry affect how we feel and behave. Natalie Matosin, a neuroscientist at the University of Wollongong, Australia, is investigating the cumulative effects of stress over a lifetime, based on physical and chemical clues left behind in brain tissue.

She examines slivers of postmortem brain samples under the microscope, comparing the brains of healthy donors with those of people who were diagnosed with PTSD or depression. One of the most startling discoveries focused on a gene called FKBP5, that is activated by circulating cortisol. Matosin and colleagues discovered that in people carrying a certain variant of this gene, the gene was switched on far more readily, amplifying the effect of cortisol as it courses through the body.

People who carry the risk gene tend to have higher levels of cortisol and are also more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder after being exposed to very stressful circumstances. Like others in the field, Matosin hopes that it will one day be possible to identify those who are most vulnerable to stress and provide more effective treatments. Stress is unavoidable and according to scientists the quest for a stress-free existence is likely to be futile.

However, an emerging scientific understanding of stress could in future help protect us from its very darkest side. After a stressful experience, levels should reduce. This can also help build their confidence, while giving you a sense of what to review the next lesson.

It was previously thought that short-term memory could hold up to seven chunks of information. However, current research now suggests that two to four chunks of information is the maximum amount for working memory. The amount of stimulus constantly received by the brain overloads our short-term memory very quickly. Learning and memory also quickly consumes resources such as glucose.

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The more intense the learning, the quicker these resources are consumed, meaning students can become overburdened even sooner. Tip: Teach in small digestible chunks and allow students adequate time to process the content. Then rest the brain.

When students are constantly overloaded with school work and personal responsibilities they are on hyper-alert. This response has evolved from the physiological mechanism designed to allow us to survive in a crisis. Stress chemicals help mobilise energy and increase alertness. With chronic stress, however, our bodies become flooded with these chemicals, resulting in a loss of brain cells and an inability to form new ones. This can affect our ability to retain new information. Tip: Incorporate physical activity or music into lessons, allowing for both a break in the content and an increase in blood supply and hence oxygen to the brain.

Or consider incorporating stress-relieving techniques such as stretching and breathing exercises as part of your curriculum. You can do this at the start your class or when you start to see students become anxious or lose interest. A happy brain is a productive brain. So how do we form memories? Here are some ways to do this: Appeal to all the senses Learning strategies that engage all of our senses including visual seeing and perceiving , auditory hearing and speaking and tactile touch and movement increases the likelihood of both storing and retrieving the information.

Meaningful connections Scientific research has revealed that the most successful construction of a memory takes place when new content is linked to prior knowledge. Repeat, repeat, repeat Once a memory is constructed it needs to be activated multiple times to deepen the synaptic connection. Smaller chunks It was previously thought that short-term memory could hold up to seven chunks of information.

Provide a stress-free environment When students are constantly overloaded with school work and personal responsibilities they are on hyper-alert. Follow us on Twitter via GuardianTeach. Join the Guardian Teacher Network for lesson resources, comment and job opportunities , direct to your inbox. Topics Teacher Network. Reuse this content.

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