Too Stressed to Learn? 7 Ways to Create Supportive Learning for Stressed-Out Learners

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TL;DR: Stress and tragic events can mess with our brains and impair our ability to learn. Being in a constant state of stress makes it hard to concentrate, remember things, and stay motivated. As learning experience designers, we need to create a supportive learning environment which provides psychological safety, sets clear and measurable learning goals, takes into consideration the cognitive load of the learner, is flexible and encourages peer-to-peer collaboration. By doing so, we can help stressed-out learners thrive and succeed in their learning and in their journey of life.

“I’m too tired.” 

“I just can’t today!

“My brain’s in a fog.”

I’m sure you can come up with a few excuses of your own for things that you’ve put off doing, right?

Nowadays most of us are stressed to the max. We’re overstimulated, overcommitted and plain old overly ambitious when it comes to what we want to accomplish at work and maybe in life. 

All too often our goals for personal and professional development take a back seat while we manage the million and two other things we need to prioritize.

I’m sure if I asked you to, you could easily outline a list of personal, environmental, social, work related – maybe even technological concerns that leave you feeling overwhelmed day in and day out and perhaps even on the verge of burnout. This is not only discouraging, it can also affect how or if you reach your goals for development and growth. 

What invisible load of stress are you carrying around on your shoulders?

Should we push through the stress in a manic attempt to achieve those goals? Can our brains really absorb what we need them to when we’re under so much pressure? If not, what is the answer to this stressful conundrum we find ourselves in?

To find out, let’s explore what effect being locked into stress mode has on our brains and our potential to learn, and just what exactly we – as learning experience professionals – can do to better support our learners to effectively learn new skills while coping with stress.

Brain sciencey stuff goes here.

Let’s cut to the chase. There’s enough scientific evidence out there to suggest that stress has a major impact on the neurobiological and cognitive processes involved in information processing, learning and memory formation.

(You can watch the video below for a more comprehensive understanding)


While we won’t go too far down the rabbit hole of scholarly articles or scientific research which help build this argument, I do want you to keep the following key points in mind:

Stress can…

1. Impair Cognitive Functioning & Cause Memory/Recall Challenges

Have you ever had so much to do that your brain goes fuzzy and sort of shuts down and you end up doing nothing at all? Well, there’s a reason for this…

High levels of stress trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with memory formation and retrieval. When experiencing stress our brain in effect shuts down and goes into fight, flight or freeze mode – which means that our cognitive functioning is impaired, making it challenging to concentrate, focus, and retain information. So, go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief. You’re not alone – it happens to all of us!

Chronic stress may even impair our working memory, which is essential for processing and manipulating information, which affects learning and problem-solving abilities.

2. Reduce Concentration and Lead to Emotional Distress

Do you remember Dory from Finding Nemo? Everyone laughs at how easily she forgets things but maybe she’s just a little stressed out.

Stress can lead to a heightened state of alertness, causing us to become easily distracted and have difficulty concentrating on tasks. This can disrupt our ability to absorb new information or engage in complex cognitive processes necessary for learning.

Acute stress (and the events surrounding a stressful experience) also evoke strong emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, or anxiety. Now, think about the last time you experienced one of these emotions. What if I asked you to pay attention to, try to understand and commit to memory a new topic at that time, how well do you think you would have been able to do that?

Unless you’re one of the Avengers, I’m assuming not so well. That’s because emotional distress consumes our mental and emotional resources, making it difficult for us to engage effectively in learning activities.

3. Decrease Motivation & Negative Impact on Overall Well-being

Most of us live within a moderate range of stress, fluctuating between high levels of overwhelming and exhausting stress and back down to the base level of moderate again. (*Checks sports watch stress level*)

But how often do we take the time to check in with ourselves to see how we are actually doing? What has our approach to daily to-dos been like recently? How’s our general outlook on life and what’s the status of our overall well-being?

Unfortunately, ongoing stress can diminish our levels of motivation, as we may feel overwhelmed, helpless, or disengaged. This lack of motivation can result in reduced effort, decreased participation, and an overall decrease in our desire to learn.

It’s not surprising then that severe stress significantly affects overall well-being, including physical and mental health, as well as our peer-to-peer / social interactions.

Let’s face it, stress just leaves us feeling crummy. Instead of being at our peak, ready to take on the world, we feel like we’re dragging, with a mountain of problems on our back.

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So, the end of the matter is clear – stressful experiences can have a profound effect on our cognitive abilities, emotions, and overall well-being, all of which can significantly influence the way we learn.

When tragedy strikes…

Isn’t life a funny thing? It’s hard to wrap your head around how one minute you could be laughing at a joke you heard or enjoying the beautiful sunshine and a good meal – feeling pretty good – and the next, your world feels like it’s crumbling because someone called to give you some bad news. 

“He just found out his wife has stage 3 breast cancer.”

“Her father passed away.”

“We lost the baby.”

Up till now, we’ve been mostly discussing the mundane yet chronic stress of life that accumulates over time and may ebb and flow according to various situations or circumstances. But what about when a traumatic, unexpected, life changing event occurs?

Firstly, let’s be explicit in establishing the fact that when a major, perhaps sudden, life-defining incident takes place you need to rest. Take time off and digest the emotions which that event produced. This should go without saying. 

However, what about when it’s time to get back in the saddle again? While the following is generally an unspoken truth, let’s acknowledge the fact that unfortunately time (and life) waits for no one. This means that sooner than we may like to or want to go back to the daily grind, the call of duty beckons us. Yet, what about the lingering turmoil which resides in your mind and heart? It may be invisible to most but the ability it has to gradually diminish your effectiveness at work is undeniable. 

So, what does this have to do with learning? People can’t concentrate on their work or effectively learn new skills when they feel like even deciding what to eat for lunch is too much to handle. I can say this because I speak from experience. That’s why as a learning experience designer I believe more than ever before that life’s unexpected events need to be taken into account and learners need extra support during these times.

Grief is a heavy burden and learners need to be shown empathy. Steps need to be taken to help them traverse this rocky terrain.

Since we’ve already established how stress affects the brain of a learner (and the findings also apply to traumatic events) let’s discuss how learning experience designers can come to the aid of those who want to or need to learn new skills to achieve their learning goals while enduring this thing we call life.

Be kind to your learners.

By now I hope we all agree that it is crucial for learning experience designers to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment that takes into account the potential impact of stress and tragic events. But let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about how we can actually do this.

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When designing a learning event, consider how you could work in these 7 ways to create supportive learning for stressed out learners:

1. Foster a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment: Create an atmosphere that promotes psychological safety, empathy, and respect. Encourage open communication and provide learners with a way to express their concerns or seek support where their learning and development is concerned.

2. Leadership Support: One of the best ways to build an ecosystem which supports learners’ well-being even during stressful times or tragic events is through strong leadership. Do leaders at your organization acknowledge the challenges individuals are facing, and provide guidance and encouragement? What other resources or policies does your organization implement which prioritize well-being and provide support mechanisms for individuals navigating stressful situations? Could your team benefit from a Mental Health Day – where everyone can have some time to stop, rest and breathe before getting back on the hamster wheel?

3. Promote Social Support and Collaboration: Encourage collaboration among learners through cohort-based learning which creates opportunities for peer support and group discussions. Social connections can provide emotional support, promote engagement, and facilitate the learning process.

4. Focus on Manageable and Measurable Learning Goals: Clearly communicating learning objectives and utilizing good change management techniques will help you gain learner buy-in for the long-term. Sharing the why behind the need to develop certain skills or learn new procedures increases people’s motivation to actually complete the program and retain the information. So instead of seeing learning experiences as a chore, your learners will see the long-range view because there is a sense of purpose, progress and achievement.

5. Design For Cognitive Load: Having clear, measurable learning objectives that focus on what someone needs to be able to do differently is the first step. But it’s just as important to make sure you break down complex tasks into manageable steps and chunk the information. Maybe you could design an infographic for the information instead of writing an essay on it? Aim to only provide the least amount of material they need to be able to support and bridge the knowledge gap. Avoid adding a heaping serving size of content to our already overwhelmed learners’ plates and instead make it easy for their tired brains to consume the material.

6. Design Flexibility into the Program and Be Accommodating: Recognize that individuals may require flexibility during challenging times. Can you allow for alternative learning formats, summarized learnings, extended deadlines, or additional support resources to accommodate diverse needs?

7. Incorporate Stress-Reduction Techniques: When possible try to integrate stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques, or physical activities into the learning experience. These practices can help students manage stress, improve focus, and enhance overall well-being.

The learning gems we’ve collected are…

Invaluable! By acknowledging the impact that severe, chronic stress and tragic events have on learning as well as the learner is the first step towards progress. Implementing as many supportive strategies as possible into a learning experience shows that learning designers care not only about checking completion scores and collecting user data in the LMS but that they want to create a nurturing environment that enhances learning outcomes and supports the well-being of learners.

So, in review – stress and tragic events can mess with our brains and impair our ability to learn. Being in a constant state of stress makes it hard to concentrate, remember things, and stay motivated. As learning experience designers, we need to create a supportive learning environment which provides psychological safety, sets clear and measurable learning goals, takes into consideration the cognitive load of the learner, is flexible and encourages peer-to-peer collaboration. By doing so, we can help stressed-out learners thrive and succeed in their learning as well as in their journey of life.

Here at Curious Lion we believe that truly transformational learning takes place within a broader ecosystem that supports learning. That’s why we take a more holistic approach to designing transformational learning experiences

And that’s all I got to say about that.

In the words of Forrest – life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.

So, remember that every bite-sized, streamlined, user-friendly, cohort-based or easily consumable learning experience we create helps our learners get one step closer to achieving their career and – more importantly – life goals, even on the worst of days.  

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