Stress and Students with Learning Disabilities

Daniel J. Berkowitz, M.A.

Stress, the perception of a threat to one's well being and the apprehension that one is unable to cope with the perceived threat, is brought about by the continual adjustments and demands that individuals place upon themselves as they react to given stimuli. As the individual is called upon to adjust to changing situations, the greater the stress which is acquired. Stress is a combination of factors that affect each individual differently. That which is stressful to one person, may not be so to another, and reactions to stressors vary among individuals. "Stress," according to one expert, "is a non-specific response of the body to a demand" (Kopolow, 1987). In the complicated worlds of our students, these 'demands' can come from a variety of directions: academic, social, financial, familial, and others. Stress can manifest itself in ways psychological, physiological and behavioral.

For all the negative publicity it receives, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not always harmful and can result from pleasant experiences as well as unpleasant ones. The human body perceives excitement in much the same way it perceives fear. Both emotions produce stress, which in turn affords the body an extra boost of energy. The physical attributes of stress, which include elevated heart and breathing rates, together with increased adrenaline flow, improve muscle strength and energy levels. Physiologically, stress sharpens an individual's awareness and boosts overall energy levels just when they are needed the most. Having the knowledge and ability to harness this stress energy can help students meet physical challenges, solve problems, complete assignments, and meet their goals.

A potentially serious problem is that the human body is unable to distinguish positive stress from negative stress. Positive stress can become negative stress as the excitement of being in college turns into the fear of being in college. When negative stress becomes excessive or out of control, it becomes harmful. Physically, improved muscle strength may lead to increased muscle contractions and strain. This manifests itself through head and back aches, soreness and stiff necks, digestive problems, and spasms. If left unchecked, increased adrenaline flow can lead to an inability to concentrate, lack of sleep or constant fatigue, an unwillingness to eat or continual hunger, and a variety of nervous symptoms (e.g., grinding teeth, tapping fingers, clenching fists). Stress can also cause physiologically behavioral changes such as emotional distress, fear, forgetfulness, panic attacks, general irritability, and either an inability to communicate or excessive talking.

Students often experience a variety of difficulties making the transition from a structured, supervised high school context to a relatively unstructured college or university. For students with learning disabilities, this transition, coupled the negative effects of stress, can be especially troubling. Students with learning disabilities are more likely to feel the effects of stress in the educational environment and are more likely to exhibit signs of tension and anxiety (Brinckerhoff, Shaw, McGuire, 1993). Learning disabled students making the transition to postsecondary education may feel increased pressure to perform at the same level as their non-learning disabled peers. The increased academic expectations of college may lead some students to believe that they are incapable of living up to personal, peer, and parental expectations. Looking beyond the individual's disability, consistently high levels of stress may result not from the students current academic involvement, but from growing up in a stressful family environment (Brinckerhoff, Shaw, McGuire, 1993), parental stress brought about by unrealistic expectations for the child or a denial or ambivalence about the child's disability (Dyson 1996), or peer pressure leading to a heightened state of anxiety (Huntington & Bender, 1993).

Stress management, the ability to effectively deal with stress and stressful situations, involves a variety of coping strategies, lifestyle or behavioral changes, and methods of short term stress release. Positive coping strategies for the individual involve learning how to prioritize activities, setting realistic goals, using positive self-talk and self-hypnosis, and making time for play. Lifestyle changes involve effectively using time management strategies, maintaining good physical health (including eating and sleeping properly), and learning about what stressors most impact upon the individual. Short term stress release methods include such things as taking study breaks and going for a walk, doing regular breathing exercises, taking short mental 'vacations', and popping sealed air capsules (i.e., bubble paper) (Dillon, 1992), just to name a few. Wach (1989), recommends that students keep a daily journal tracking how they manage their time and which may provide clues about events which "trigger" stress symptoms.

As learning specialists and service providers, it is important for us to be able to recognize the outward signs of stress overload in our students. These stress signals may include;

  1. a sudden dramatic increase or decrease in academic efforts

  2. major changes in attitude or temperament (irritability, lack of enthusiasm, carelessness)

  3. withdrawal or outbursts

  4. overactive or distracting behaviors (fidgeting, nervous tics, jumping from task to task, showing difficulty in concentrating, being prone to accidents, and sighing)

  5. complaints of fatigue and vague illnesses

  6. problems sleeping

  7. headaches or stomachaches

  8. drug and/or alcohol use or abuse

  9. increase in allergic or asthmatic attacks

  10. avoidance of school or testing situations by direct refusal or convenient illness

  11. loss of appetite or excessive eating, and

  12. antisocial or disruptive behaviors (Rubenzer, 1988).

Unfortunately, when compared to their non-disabled peers, students with learning disabilities tend to lack appropriate coping strategies for dealing with stress. This may be caused by a delay in cognitive development which could result in lower metacognitive abilities. In other words, students with learning disabilities are less likely to recognize that they have a problem for which they need help (Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996). Many learning disabled students rely on denial as a strategy for coping with stress. It is important for professional staff to help students understand that actively dealing with school-related problems is a more productive long-term strategy, and help them identify methods with which to exercise some control over their academic pursuits (Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996). Seeking the support of peers is another common coping method which may not always be appropriate for students with learning disabilities. Geisthardt & Munsch (1996) studied the coping strategies of students both with and without learning disabilities. They found that not only are learning disabled students less likely to discuss their problems with peers, but that these students also generally have smaller peer groups to turn to. In addition, the peer groups of students with learning disabilities usually include mostly other learning disabled students. In an unstructured environment (i.e., simply crying on each other's shoulder), this form of peer support may negate any potentially positive aspects of the relationship. Therefore, organizing and maintaining a professionally led student support group may prove very beneficial to students dealing with stress and other issues.

As if stress itself is not harmful enough, students engage in the abuse of a number substances which act as stress enhancers. In fact, many students believe that these substances help them to relax. Caffeine and cigarettes, with the nicotine and other chemicals they contain, work as stimulants on the body. Caffeine and cigarettes may rob the body of certain vitamins and minerals, which the body must then replace. Additionally, the cost of cigarettes may lead to additional concerns over personal finances. Although quitting smoking or decreasing one's caffeine intake may be very stressful processes, the long term mental and physical health benefits make it worthwhile. Excessive sugar intake may also have physical effects on the body and should be avoided. Eating too many sugary foods will leave students less hungry for more nutritious ones, and they may end up missing valuable vitamins and minerals. The brief energy boost that accompanies the intake of sugar is quickly replaced by a longer shortage of energy.

Drugs and alcohol also work as stress enhancers. Many students hold the mistaken belief that drugs and alcohol will relieve their stressors and help them to relax. Addiction, and subsequent negative health issues, may develop within a relatively short amount of time. A preliminary study by Rhodes and Jasinski (1990) found that learning disabilities may be related to the development of alcoholism. In the study, they found that some of the subjects "turned to alcohol as an escape from the stress of their problems, rather than because of an inherited predisposition" (p 555).

Stress affects everyone, but it can be especially detrimental to students with learning disabilities. As learning specialist and service providers, it is important for us to have a solid understanding of both the effects of stress on our students and be able to recognize stress within them. If our students can learn to cope with and prevent stress in themselves, they will be able to more efficiently accomplish goals they have set for themselves.




Brinckerhoff, Loring C., Shaw, Stan F., McGuire, Joan M. (1993). Promoting Postsecondary Education for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Handbook for Practitioners. Pro-Ed: Austin, TX.


Dillon, Kathleen M. (1992). Popping Sealed Air-Capsules to Reduce Stress.  Psychological Reports, 71, 243-246.


Geisthardt, Cheryl, & Munsch, Joyce. (1996). Coping with School Stress: A Comparison of Adolescents With and Without Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(3), 225-336.


Huntington, Deborah D. & Bender, William N. (1993). Adolescents with Learning Disabilities at Risk? Emotional Well-Being, Depression, Suicide. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26(3), 159-166.


Kopolow, Louise E. (1987). Plain Talk About Handling Stress. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health, Division of Communication and Education


Rhodes, Sharyn S., & Jasinski, Donald R. (1990). Learning Disabilities in Alcohol Dependent Adults: A Preliminary Study. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(9), 551-556.


Rubenzer, Ronald L. (1988). Stress Management and the Learning Disabled. Eric Document Reproduction Service, ED295396


About this article

This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the Learning Assistance Association of New England (LAANE), and was submitted to the LCN by its author:

Daniel J. Berkowitz
Assistant Director
Office of Disability Services
Martin Luther King Jr. Center
Boston University
19 Deerfield Street
Boston, MA 02215


Next Month

Make sure to check next month's issue of the LCN for another article by Daniel Berkowitz titled "Support Groups for Students with Learning Disabilities."


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