How Stress Generators Affect Learning and the ADD Brain, Part I

Ever notice what happens to you or your child when you or they are already emotionally stressed and then drink a cup of coffee or eat a candy bar? Initially you feel a little bit better; and then you crash. From my reading of the medical literature and from my experience working with clients, I believe stress exacerbates ADD and so does sugar and / or caffeine since both can act as stressors. ADD, attention deficit disorder, and ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, have long been associated with an imbalance in dopamine levels in the pre-frontal cortex, the front region of the brain involved in filtering out stimuli and controlling responses as it helps with general decision making, and judgment calls about your environment.

With diminished filtering capacity, the pre-frontal cortex of the ADD brain, treats all incoming stimuli as equal in importance. For example a school-age child with ADD, pays equal attention to the teacher, the kid next to him ruffling through his backpack, kids outside the classroom in the hallway, and the sound of the air conditioner coming through the ventilation shaft. Additionally, the imbalance in the prefrontal cortex of the brain will lead to difficulty inhibiting behaviors like speaking out of turn or getting out of a seat.

These actions are typically restrained or curtailed when there is balanced brain chemistry and ADD is absent. An individual with ADD will already exhibit all the classic signs of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity; then add sugar to the mix. The addition of the sugar related stressor overwhelms the brain. As a result of one too many stimuli, the brain shuts down to protect itself. The prefrontal cortex is not the only brain area that interferes with learning in response to stress. The amygdala, the seat of our emotions, plays a role and will be discussed in Part II of this article series.