The amygdala, anxiety, and college student decision-making

November 11, 2023 at 2:29 PM
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The amygdala, anxiety, and college student decision-making

by Rachel Cassel UA’24 and Jim Stellar

In cognitive-emotional integration that we write about in this blog series, we think we have a critical factor in college student decision-making – about their future careers, and in particular in about how learning from direct experience (e.g. internships) combines with learning from the classroom. But what if the student has a history of mild anxiety? How does that affect the limbic system (emotional) input to this dual decision-making process?

Some think of anxiety as more of a trait rather than clinical diagnosis. We think that a brain structure called the amygdala plays an important role here. It is located within a pathway that connects the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to the temporal lobe. Specifically, with the amygdala, the basal-lateral nucleus (BLA) of the amygdala receives input from and interacts with the frontal cortex as we have previously written about. An interesting concept that was also discussed in a previous blog is that even in normals this “cognitive-emotional integration” can affect a non-clinical anxiety trait where normal people can be arranged on a continuum of more to less “chill.” Aptly named, this is the process in which the brain merges cognitive information with emotional responses to make a decision. As noted, we often discuss this process in terms of college students evaluating the hands-on experiences they have while pursuing their degrees. For example, my (RC) overall evaluation of my internship will determine if I pursue a career in that field, and the emotional judgments I make in that deciding process are incredibly important. The amygdala is one of the central players in these emotional judgements. We now raise the following question: What if a student has a tendency to be a bit more anxious, does that mean that the student has a different experience and maybe gets a slightly different type of academic or career advising?

Experiential learning is beneficial to a student because it offers opportunities to gain concrete skills (such as learning the steps of making a lesson plan in a teaching situation), as well as more abstract ones (such as how to remain patient with a student who is acting out). The combination of these skills into one totaled experience is the process of cognitive-emotional integration. Now that we have this foundation, consider a college student who is naturally anxious. Such a student with anxiety likely has a hyperactive amygdala and a weaker connection between the BLA and the PFC. During experiential education, the BLA is responsible for taking sensory and emotional input and sending it to the cortical areas where it can be integrated with cognitive information. If this pathway is weak, perhaps that information isn’t sent as efficiently, or perhaps it comes in as distorted, so the judgment of the situation is lacking. If this is the case, the student would be missing out on crucial pieces regarding the emotional learning components of the situation. Therefore, we can make the claim that anxiety detracts from the benefits of experiential education from the cognitive-emotional integration perspective. 

We’ve now covered how anxiety can affect the evaluation of experiential education after the situation has passed, but how does anxiety affect the student’s performance during their actual internship? Firstly, anxiety would cause the student to be more timid and less likely to take initiative. They may not seize opportunities that students with low amounts of anxiety would. For example, I (RC) am an intern in a kindergarten classroom, and I frequently lead the kids in activities and lessons if the teacher has to step out or handle a situation. I would consider myself as someone with low anxiety, and I believe I am capable of taking on this responsibility in that situation. An intern with higher anxiety would hesitate before taking on that responsibility, or even refuse to do it at all. In this case, the student isn’t taking advantage of all the possible opportunities available to them, which limits the information and experiences they can use when making a judgment of their own experiential education. Additionally, anxiety can negatively affect a student’s performance on the tasks that are expected or required of them, not just extra responsibilities. This could result in negative feedback from a supervisor, exacerbating the anxiety of the student and beginning a cycle of high anxiety and low quality performance. That experience could lead them to seek another field of study, possibly even switching their major.

The last question we want to address is the “So, what?” question. In our scenario, we have a student who is placed in an internship to help them decide on a career path. The student has an anxious disposition, but does everything asked of them and has an overall positive evaluation of the experience. They’ve used the practical skills of their internship, supplemented with classroom knowledge, to decide they want to continue this path and aim for a career in that position. Why does this matter? Immersing oneself in a career as an intern gives the student unique insight into the responsibilities of the job that may not be communicated in a classroom setting. It allows the student to ‘prove’ to themself that they can handle the demands of that career. In other words, they know now this career is a realistic option, despite feelings of anxiety. This experience could help to increase a student’s self-efficacy, and reduce their anxiety when they have a similar task in the future. Despite anxiety potentially hindering performance, it can also be a lesson in resilience. As Susan Jeffers said, “the only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it”. 

Do they develop professional wisdom? Are they the less anxious or more anxious ones. This could go either way. More chill might seem wiser. More anxious might work harder to not fail and accomplish more. This is our next blog together.

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ADHD – brain structure and function – a focus on emotions and the amygdala
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