Is stress impacting on your language learning ability?

Life is stressful enough without schools and colleges love of using standardized tests, especially for languages! More and more students are feeling the stress of life, finances, and school. The surge of under 18s being prescribed medication for anxiety due to high stress especially around exam time is unfortunately on the increase!  This stress does not stop at school or college… independent language learners, such as those that learn outside of a curriculum based educational environment can feel the impact too. As independent language learners, we might stress about not speaking as fluently as we want too OR we may have to take a test to prove a level of language efficiency for our employees. Then there are the general life stresses of work, family and maybe even money worries.

So, how does the brain react to stress?

Stress is the body’s natural reaction to an increased demand that is placed on it. It exists for a reason… for a person to take action.

If you were an elastic band you could stretch…


What happens to an elastic band that is stretched too far?

It breaks!

A student’s or independent learners reaction, to a standardized test or reaction to the high-level goals we might place upon ourselves, may induce stress. This could then trigger a response of our autonomic nervous and endocrine systems. This will lead to disrupted sleeping patterns, tiredness, irregular eating habits, increased infections, excessive worry, and the inability to focus.

This can also increase the risk of a student or independent learner just giving up on the language! Studies have also shown that students suffering from stress and anxiety have decreased cognitive functioning, such as a reduced memory capacity and problems with processing information.

Where is stress processed within the brain?

Three different brain regions are responsible for the way someone processes stress in the form of fear…

1). The prefrontal cortex. This area is believed to play a part in the interpretation of sensory stimuli and also has a part in emotional regulation and cognitive functioning. As a consequence, it is seen as the area of the brain where danger is first assessed!  

2). This danger then translates as fear within the brain. Fear is processed in the amygdala, which resides in a “primitive” (sometimes known as reptilian) area of our brain more formally known as the limbic system (that includes the hippocampus that hosts our memories). When the amygdala is in this state of stress-induced over-activation, new sensory information cannot pass through it to access the memory and association circuits.

3). Finally, the hypothalamus is an area at the base of the brain. This sends signals from the prefrontal cortex and amygdala and coordinates the release of hormones.  These drive your motor responses to the perceived threats. If the stress levels are high the body releases cortisol and, in so doing, it is preparing the body to defend itself from harm. This was great in our caveman days when we had a saber tooth tiger to fight off – but a reaction to a test or our own goal setting! We can’t spear our test papers.

In summary, stress can impact negatively upon our performance in tests and during study sessions. Prolonged stress can lead to serious physical and mental health problems. When students and independent learners get into an emotional state of stress they are not responsive to processing and storing new information. Additional neuroimaging studies of the amygdala, hippocampus regions of the brain, the limbic system, along with measurement of dopamine levels and other brain chemical transmitters during the learning process, reveal that comfort level of the learner has a critical impact on information transmission and storage within the brain. These factors have been found to affect self-confidence, trust and positive feelings for teachers, and supportive communities and are directly related to the state of mind compatible with the most successful learning, remembering, and thinking processes.

“Science has shown that if you are stressed out, new information cannot get into the brain as the defense shutters go down.”


Thankfully,  neuroimaging and EEG Studies have led to the development of strategies to help learners make their brains more efficient for learning even in stressful situations.  


If stress can negatively impact on our learning ability what can we do about it?




Learning ultimately takes place when experiences are motivating and engaging. Positive motivation impacts upon the metabolism of the brain, conducting new nerve impulses through the memory areas, and thus the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive functioning, focus, and attention.


We live in a stressful and busy world, strategies are required to manage emotional regulation and pleasure as well as knowledge. When the right strategies are applied to better manage stress and build a positive emotional environment, students and independent learners can gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.

10 Ways you can reduce stress and become a more efficient learner…

1. Ensure you have a good study routine in place with regular breaks.

2. Increase fluid (water) and fuel (food) intake and get some physical exercise, at least 2 30 minute aerobic workouts per week – this could include walking.

3. Set realistic goals and put together a learning plan, download the free Goal Setting ToolKit or Daily Planner Template.  Mix up the dull and interesting tasks and add different activities, such as gamification for learning languages or a mixture of audio and visual.  

4. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and embrace mistakes – this is how we learn. Try to find humor in any mistakes. Seeing the funny side is a good strategy as when you laugh you release the bodies feel-good chemicals. If you stress over a situation the body releases cortisol and too much build up of this can be bad for mental and physical wellbeing.

5. Facing an exam? Take a deep breath (or 3) even if during the test. This will help re-oxygenate the brain.

6. Take 5 to review your own mindset. Are you being too hard on yourself? Is a perfectionist attitude having an impact on learning? Need some help dealing with a negative mindset? Check out How to Manage Unhelpful Thoughts When Learning a New Language

7. Set a language learning budget – don’t feel guilty about spending money on learning. Allocate a language learning budget that is affordable to you. Planning tuition costs and materials. Make use of free trials and free language learning resources, such as LingoHut, where you can learn the basics of a language for free.

8. Collaborative learning – Join a motivational language learning group or take part in a challenge to push the boundaries, but in an environment that is supportive and can hold you accountable.

9. List your achievements in a journal or interactive notebook and read them when you need a boost.

10. Share your thoughts – talk to someone.  By discussing your thoughts on language learning with others you may gain a different perspective or realize you are not alone in your struggles. You might also feel a lot calmer and listened to.


Enthusiasm for Language Learning

Enthusiasm, regulated mood and being able to manage stress are absolutely essential for learning to happen. This is scientific fact, with years of research behind it. Learning physically changes the structure and function of our brains. This change can be transformational in building a stronger belief in the value of working hard and persevering in order to master a new language. Neuroplasticity and the brain’s potential can have a positive effect on self-perceptions and success.


Published by

The Mindful Language Learner

Trisha, is the founder of Language Learners An award-winning blog dedicated to empowering and promoting a more mindful approach to independent language learning and teaching across the UK and beyond. Trisha has a professional and academic background in psychology and well-being. She has been practicing mindfulness for over 20 years and has professionally taught CBT-based mindfulness for the past 7 years. You can follow Trisha on her official Facebook Page, Instagram or Twitter accounts to discover how to apply simply mindfulness practices and scientifically proven strategies to your language learning...