Stressful experience and learning across the lifespan

Annu Rev Psychol. 2006;57:55-85. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190205.


It is usually assumed that stressful life events interfere with our ability to acquire new information. However, many studies suggest that stressful experience can enhance processes involved in learning. The types of learning that are enhanced after stressful experiences include classical fear and eyeblink conditioning, as well as processes related to learning about threatening stimuli. Stressful life experiences do seem to interfere with processes involved in memory, often expressed as deficits in the retention or retrieval of information that was acquired prior to and was unrelated to the stressful experience. The trends are limited, as are their implications, because most studies examine adult males, yet the effects of stress on learning processes are influenced by age and sex differences. With respect to mechanisms and anatomical substrates, the effects of stress on learning are usually dependent on the action of stress hormones in combination with neuronal activities within the hippocampus, amygdala, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, and the prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*