Introduction Every eightin 10 college students stated that in the past three months they “sometimes orfrequently” experienced stress in their daily lives according to a 2008 report (AmericanInstitute of Stress, 2017). Although to experience stress is normal, there is adisparity in stress level rates for college students in comparison to otherpopulations. As such, many researchers have studied the effects of chronicstress on the executive function of scholars at the collegiate level.Accordingto the American Institute of Stress (2017), the rising stress levels in collegestudents inspired their mental health study. These stress level rates showed a20% increase from the reports of college students in 2003 (AIS, 2017). Stresslevel increases have also been investigated by the American PsychologicalAssociation. The APA conducted a survey with a one to 10-point scale to examinestress levels over the past month (2015). One represented “little or no stress”and 10 represented “a great deal of stress” (APA 2015).
They also found thatyounger generations have steadily reported, and struggled with, higher rates ofstress than other generations. This was true in the 2015 study wheremillennials, individuals aged 18-36, had an average stress rate of six out of10 while reports on other generations averaged only three-and-a-half out of 10. Increases in stress levels, such as the rates seen inthese studies, prompted the American Psychological Association to then conductannual surveys to examine the effects stress have on the mind and body inadults (2017). Many studies and articles have shown a direct relationship betweenstress and executive functioning.
Executive functioning is defined by theAmerican Psychiatric Association as “a set ofmental processes that helps us get things done…” (2017). “Executive functionis sometimes described as the CEO of the brain — in charge of making surethings get done” (American Psychiatric Association, 2017). Executivefunctioning helps individuals with multiple tasks, such as the ability to timemanage, the ability to pay attention, the ability to switch focus, the abilityto plan and organize, and more (American Psychiatric Associations, 2017). College students are constantlyhaving to use their executive functioning skills.
The typical full-time,undergraduate student is required to take approximately 12 credit hours asemester, generally three to four classes. With rigorous schedules, studentsmust manage their time for class, studying, and extracurricular activities.Scholars are required to switch their focus from one class to the next and payattention in each class for positive academic achievement. The demands of beinga college student and completing so many executive functioning skillssimultaneously can be stressful. Unfortunately, we already see trends thatcollege students have higher stress levels than other individuals.
According toAmy Novotney (2014), as the number of individuals entering college increases,the demand for counseling rises. Students expressed difficulty in dealing withdifferent stressors, such as anxiety. She also stated that students who were strugglingwere more likely to drop out of college altogether. Approximately 47% of thecollege students who reported seeking counseling in 2013 quantified the stressfrom anxiety as their cause (Novotney, 2014).Research investigating the relationship between chronicstress and executive functioning is extremely important to be able tounderstand how the levels of stress impact executive functioning performanceand how to better assist college students. So, do increased stress levels incollege students cause poor executive functioning performance, or not? Therehas been evidence that a relationship does exist between increased stresslevels and executive functioning performance. Unfortunately, the findings overthe years have been contradicting. Some studies suggest that stress canincrease or cause positive cognitive functioning while others suggest adecrease in cognitive functioning when there is an increase in stress.
Thisstudy is to further investigate these variables and gain a better understandingof the relationship. It is hypothesized in this study that there will be astatistically significant difference in the executive functioning performanceof students who have higher levels of chronic stress. Those with higher levelsof chronic stress will have worse executive functioning performance.Literature Review Several researchers have investigated the relationshipbetween stress and executive functioning. Executive functioning is oftenmeasured in experiments by attention and memory recall performance. Thehypothesis that stress negatively affects the executive functioning of collegeaged individuals has been heavily investigated.
In a study using a between-subject design,Kofman, Meiran, Greenberg, Balas, and Cohen (2006) gathered 47 undergraduatestudents between the ages 18-29. The researchers examined the effects ofexamination stress on two executive function tasks in these students. Theyfound that in the 2 weeks prior to the exam students experienced increasedanxiety levels. Kofman et al. (2006) also found a significant interaction forstress and reaction time(RT) performance in task switching. These resultssuggested that when the students were under stress their task switchingperformances had the slowest RTs. The researchers also conducted Stroop testingas an executive functioning task and found that there were no significantfindings for the Stroop testing. Students under stress during the Strooptesting had faster RTs but increased errors for incongruent stimuli.
Similarly, researchers Petrac, Bedwell, Renk,Orem and Sims (2009) used a sample of 54 undergraduate students to examine therelationship between perceived environmental stress and executive functioningperformance. They were interested inhow self-reported environmental stress would affect divided attentionperformance. The results indicated that when the 54 participants reported anincrease in environmental stress there was a decrease in divided attentionperformance.
The researchers also controlled for anxiety and found astatistically significant positive correlation between perceived stress and theauditory omission errors from the dual condition. The findings suggest thatstudents’ perceived stress negatively affected the students’ ability toaccurately perform in both tasks.Incontrast to the relationship between stress and executive functioning seen inthe previous studies, Trammell and Clore (2014) hypothesized that”stress-induced arousal enhances long-term memory for experiencesassociated with arousing events”. They conducted three experiments to testtheir hypothesis. In each experimental group Trammell and Clore usedundergraduate students whose mean age ranged from 18.47 and 18.97. Theimmersion technique of placing participants’ arms into ice water was used as astressor.
The researchers introduced multiple forms of stimuli and varied thetime frames for participants being introduced to the stressor. However, theirfindings still aligned with the studies discussed earlier. They found that inevery experiment induced stressors interfered with long term memory.
Again,suggesting that stress has a negative effect on executive functioning. Whilemany studies suggested stress has a negative effect on executive functioningsome researchers have hypothesized that stress enhances cognitive functioning,and thus, conducted experiments to test that theory. Among these researcherswere Chajut and Algom in 2003.
They gathered 160 undergraduate, freshman.psychology students for their study. The students were between 20 and 25 yearsold. Chaut and Algom randomly placed the participants into two groups based onstress levels and conducted a series of tests. Multiple factors were used toinduced stress, such as, task difficulty, time pressure, and threat to the ego.The results indicated that the main effect of stress was highly significant inmultiple experiments. In experimental tasks involving colors and wordsparticipants performed better under high stress levels.
These findings werecontradictory to the results found in the previous studies and opposed the ironic process theory, which says thatstress will inhibit cognitive functioning.Inaddition to Chajut and Algom’s experiment, more recently in 2014, researchersGathmann, Schulte, Maderwald, Pawlikowski, Starcke, Schäfer, and Brand exploredthe correlation between decision making and stress. During their experimentstress was defined by the Trier Social Stress Test and they used a parallel working memory task. Theresults indicated that while there was an increase in neural activity for participantsin the higher stress group there was no significant difference in performanceof tasks. They found that acute stress with a parallel executivefunctioning task does not impair decision-making performance. According toGathmann et al.
acute stress helps the brain switch from serial to parallel processing.Overall, research has repeatedlyindicated that a relationship is present between stress and cognitivefunctioning. Unfortunately, there are several concerns with the literature. Theseconcerns include, conflicting or opposing outcomes, and an insignificant amountof current (within a decade) literature.The findings over the yearshave been contradicting. As seen above, some studies suggested that stressincreased cognitive functioning while others suggested a decrease in cognitivefunctioning. Many researchers noted that the relationship may vary depending onhow much stress is present.
This creates major reliability and validityconcerns.Stressand stressors, like college students are not static. Things that collegiatelevel scholars deem very stressful one yeat, may not be deemed so stressful insubsequent years. Thus, major gaps in literature and research pose significantchallenges. It was extremely difficultto find multiple articles that look at both variables with in the last 10years.
Many articles from the last few years (5 years old or less) did focus onexecutive functioning but in relation to more severe forms of stress, such asPTSD or mental disorders. These types of stressors present a new set ofvariables to account for. Additionally, much of the research that did look atboth variables did not focus on the collegiate population. It is important tohave studies relating to the population being investigated.
The studies withother age ranges make it difficult to accurately access the relationship andcausation for college students, as age is another confounding variable.Finally, there were several studies looking at non-human subjects (rats). Whilethese studies can guide the design of future studies they cannot accuratelyrepresent the college-age, human population, thus, the findings may not beeffective in implementing ways to effectively utilize the data or outcome fromthose studies.
RecommendationsThescholars in these articles made numerous recommendations. Many discussed thelimitations they encountered with the experiments as well as the need foradditional research. For some of the experiments previously discussed it wasthe first time a particular set of variables had been studied. For instance,Kofman et al. (2006) specified that their study was the initial study to showhow induced, facilitated stress effects performance on these specific two executive functioning tasks.
They recommended that the studybe repeated in the future. In the studies conducted by Petrac et al. (2009) andTrammell and Clore (2014) it was also proposed that the results suggest furtherresearch is needed to examine the relationship.
In addition to these concerns,some researches felt like the design of the experiments caused limitations. Forexample, Gathmann et all. (2014) stated that using a within subject designcould also explain the lack of significant differences in experimental groups.They suggested the use of a between-factor design in the future. Theserecommendations all have significant insight on the relationship beingdiscussed.
It repeatedly demonstrations a correlation for stress and executivefunctioning but indicates that there is room for further investigation. It hasalready been reported by the American Institute of Stress (2017) that collegestudents have shown high rates of stress. These same students need goodexecutive functioning skills to succeed in school. The recommendationspresented by the researchers’ prompt future investigators to question what thecausation is. If this can be better explored researches can potentially findsolutions on how to improve an existing dilemma for college students. Repeatingthese experiments in a much shorter time span and expanding on the knowledgecan lead to consistent findings. This will allow researchers to then focus onhow to help students manage the relationship. ConclusionAgain,the purpose for this research is to expand on the contradicting findings thatexists between increased stress levels and executive functioning performance.
To find the causation and use the results to better implement guidelines,tests, and counseling programs for students. Once the relationship isefficiently understood teachers, universities, and families can assist collegestudents and potentially lower the roughly 47%of college students in 2013 who had to seek counseling due to stress fromanxiety (Novotney, 2014). Further research can aid the population inunderstanding why stress rates have risen 20% since 2003 in college students (AIS,2017) and help decrease college drop-out rates, where scholars havedis-enrolled due to stress. Itis also ideal to fill in the literature gaps and have recent and applicablestudies to guide students.
It is not optimal to use decades old experiments conductedin 2003 to understand college students. Stress related experiments canethically be conducted on humans so it is not ideal to use results found onrats and quantify them as brain processes of students. While these experimentscan give insight and guidance to conduct future experiments in humans they donot adequately represent the process students are undergoing when subjected tostressful stimuli.Allin all, it would be superlative to explore these variables and be able todecrease stress rates, decrease drop-out rates, implement new techniques, andhelp students be academically successful.
Once a problem such as stresseffecting executive functioning has been identified it is the duty ofresearchers and practitioners to explore the problem and create the bestsolution for that problem. That is the main goal of this research.