Academic journal article College Student Journal

The Relationship between Stress, Fatigue, and Cognitive Functioning

Academic journal article College Student Journal

The Relationship between Stress, Fatigue, and Cognitive Functioning

Article excerpt

There is a plethora of research suggesting that daily stressors and fatigue can have a significant effect on learning and various cognitive functions in young adults. Little is known, however, about how these effects impact learning and other neurocognitive functions in students with learning challenges when compared to their counterparts without learning difficulties. In the present study, a total of 60 college-aged students completed an extensive battery of neurocognitive functioning and learning including measures of fatigue, stress, executive functioning, working memory, and scholastic ability. The results indicated that fatigue and perceived stress had significant negative effects on participants' learning and cognitive performance and that these two factors (i.e., fatigue and stress) remain underestimated factors in learning. Future directions and implications are discussed in the context of the current findings.

Keywords: Stress, fatigue, learning, cognition


Daily stressors and fatigue can have a significant impact on learning and cognitive functioning in young adults (Beckner, Tucker, Delville, & Mohr, 2006; Beilock & DeCaro, 2007; Biondi & Picardi, 1999; Cohen, 1980; Lupien & Schramek, 2006; van der Linden & Eling, 2006). Cognitive resources are unevenly distributed across the population, and each student presents with their own unique set of cognitive abilities that likely here-to-fore served them sufficiently to be successful in the competition for a seat in the college classroom. However, the cognitive system during the secondary school years generally has the benefit from external structure, a better controlled sleep schedule, adequate nutrition, and general explicit structure inherent in high school. These external structures which serve the developing cortical structures across high school fade considerably to completely upon entering college--for most students (Amsten, 1999). Typically developing students, as well as those with trauma histories or cognitive compromise, fare better with the appropriate degree of structure and support--and many flounder in its absence (Salmon, Pearce, Smith, Heys, Manyande, Peters, et al., 1988). Nutrition, sleep hygiene, structure and task management are often early victims of the new found freedom of college life--resulting in quickly accumulating physiological and psychological stress. The impact of this stress has not heretofore been effectively examined in non-learning disabled or learning-disabled college aged adults. This study evaluated the general impact of cumulative and recent stress on the cognitive functioning of the college age population. The relative contributions can then be extrapolated to explain the struggles of students with known forms of cognitive compromise (e.g., learning disabilities) as well as those experiencing histories of chronic stress, psychological trauma and documented posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD).

Impact of Stress on Learning

The impact of stress on learning has been widely studied, and research has shown that cognitive abilities are affected by the physical and psychological manifestations of stress. However, there is limited consensus in the literature as to whether stress plays an inhibitory or facilitative role in the learning process (Joels, Pu, Wiegert, Oitzl, & Krugers, 2006).

On the one hand, stress and the exposure to stressful events has been shown to have an inhibitory effect on cognitive functioning across a number of domains. Research has indicated that stressful environments, and associated elevations of stress-related hormones, may result in the impairment of logical reasoning, reaction time, and vigilance (Lieberman, Bathalon, Falco, Morgan, Niro, &Tharion, 2005). As well as limitations in spatial reasoning (Kirschbaum, Wolf, May, Wippich, & Hellhammer, 1996), language deficits, processing speed, hand-eye coordination, executive functioning, and visuoconstruction (Lee et al. …

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