Tag Archives: state-dependent learning

How to Chillax

Have you ever been so stressed in a situation that you don’t even know how to function? You walk into a stressful situation having a game plan, but then you freeze and the plan goes down the drain. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

I read an article by Psychology Today that discussed Dr. Charles A. Morgan of Yale Medical School and his research on the people who encounter possibly the most stressful situations possible: the Army Special Forces. The soldiers he researched were participating in mock prisoner-of-war camps as part of their survival training. In the training, soldiers were exposed to extremely realistic simulations in which they experienced the fear, anger, and adrenaline rush of real combat. Morgan measured a chemical in the soldiers’ brains called neuropeptide Y (NPY) that regulates blood pressure and works as a tranquilizer in the brain to control anxiety and break down the effects of stress hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine). NPY is also responsible for regulating alarm and fear responses. He found that soldiers in the survival training of the Special Forces had significantly greater levels of NPY in their brains than regular troops, allowing them to feel less anxiety and fear. As well as having more NPY in their systems, the Special Forces troops showed the ability to return to regular levels of NPY less than 24 hours after the simulations, rather than the regular troops who took longer to return back to normal.

Why did the simulation seem to have so much of an effect on the Special Forces? The answer is a topic we learned about in class: state-dependent learning. “State-dependent learning is a phenomenon in which the retrieval of information is better if the subject is in the same sensory context and physiological state as during the encoding phase” (Shulz, Sosnik, Ego, Haidarliu, & Ahissar, 2000). Because the special forces had previously been put into the stressful situation of simulated combat, they were able to perform better and remain focused under such stressful circumstances. Essentially, state dependent learning is like practice for your brain. Although putting yourself in stressful situations or experiencing adrenaline rushes does not sound enjoyable to all, it will allow you to make clearer decisions and react effectively in real situations in which your stress levels are high, rather than letting the adrenaline shut you down. When we experience big adrenaline rushes, we typically drop our “game plans” as said before and focus on “fight or flight”.

This is where the adrenaline junkies in the classroom will be happy! Seeking out adrenaline rushes has shown to be effective in allowing for better brain processing and decision making in times of intense stress or fear. Now I’m not saying that you should start putting yourself in danger, but things like skydiving, bungee jumping, making a big speech, or riding a roller coaster– all things I know I’m not fond of– would give you experience in dealing with adrenaline rushes so if, God forbid, you were ever in a life or death situation or even something that is just personally stressful to you, you will more easily be able to stay calm and be rational. The article I read also gave tips as to how to stay as calm as possible when seeking out adrenaline rushes:

    1. Breathe deeply in and out through your nose. Do not hyperventilate or hold your breath,
    2. Exercise your peripheral vision – be aware of your surroundings,
    3. Listen to the sounds around you and hear what people are saying,
    4. Try to perform the task a correctly as possible,
    5. Calm yourself down afterward
    6. Focus on what you accomplished and what you can improve

Do it again. Have more fun and less anxiety.

Good luck, but be safe! It’ll just get easier with time! May the odds be ever in your favor.