Let’s start this article with an anecdote – the facts are real, the names are fictitious.
Jack and John are siblings who attend the same school; both do well with class participation, homework, regular quizzes and tests, and written reports. However, when standardized tests are announced, Jack stresses heavily about them for more than a week before the test – he loses sleep and experiences headaches, stomachaches, and nausea. He fears that his classes haven’t taught him everything he needs to know in order to pass these important tests. Normally a child who likes going to school, as test day approaches, he continually asks to stay home. His brother John, on the other hand, becomes energized and finds test-taking exhilarating, a chance to shine and show all he’s learned.
How can two siblings react so completely differently to pressure and stress? Researchers also questioned why kids respond differently under pressure; for an answer, they turned to a population of approximately 200,000 tenth grade Taiwanese students. For years, these students were required to take an extremely difficult Basic Competency Test (reportedly now replaced by a different test) that determined not only what type of high school they could attend – from high-ranked schools to low-ranked – but whether they would be allowed to attend high school at all. It essentially determined their futures from a young age, so the students’ pressure and stress levels were high leading up to and during the two-day exam. The test was so difficult, only 39 percent of students received a passing grade.
Researchers drew blood samples from 779 of those students after they took the competency test. Unlike previous tests focusing on stress, this test zeroed in on the COMT gene, an enzyme-creating gene that, among other things, removes dopamine from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That area of the brain is responsible for conflict resolution, decision-making, abstract thinking, planning, working memory, and more. Too much or too little dopamine in the prefrontal cortex can interfere with these functions, either suppressing them or magnifying them (neither extreme is good); it’s the job of COMT to maintain the correct dopamine level for optimal functionality.
There are two variants of the COMT gene: one creates enzymes that remove dopamine quickly and the other creates enzymes that clear it slowly. A person carries one or the other of these genes or has a combination of both – those with fast-clearing enzymes are categorized as “Warriors”, and those with slow-moving enzymes are classified as “Worriers”. Neither is considered preferable, but which gene variant you possess can determine your response to stressful situations, like high-pressure tests. However, while a small boost of dopamine usually enhances reactions, a massive stress-induced surge has a negative impact on people with the slower gene variant, creating something of a prefrontal cortex meltdown.
In the study of the Taiwanese students, researchers discovered that even though students with slower enzymes have higher IQs, those with faster-moving enzymes and lower IQs did better on the tests by eight percent. These results showed that cognitive advantages were actually reversed because stress negatively impacted the outcomes of the students with higher IQs and slower-moving enzymes.
The “Warrior” and “Worrier” classifications created by researchers show these attributes, among others:
- Warriors (fast-moving enzymes): respond well to pressure, threatening situations and deadlines; performance can suffer with repetitive tasks and lack of pressure
- Worriers (slow-moving enzymes): better with complex planning, higher working memory, cognitive advantages in stress-free environments
COMT genes are inherited; it’s estimated that about half the population has a mix of both warrior and worrier genes, a quarter have only warrior genes and the remaining quarter have only worrier genes. But genetic predisposition doesn’t have to dictate how you handle short-term stressful situations – research studies are showing that with training, Worriers can perform as well as Warriors in high-stress environments, such as in combat roles. Research psychologist Quinn Kennedy of the Naval Postgraduate School found that taxing Worriers without overwhelming them allows them to adjust to and manage specific repeated stressors, “even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”
A combination of exercise and dietary strategies can also help modulate dopamine levels in the brain, but the right combination and correct type of exercise needs to be determined for each individual.