This is Your Brain on Stress!

Why is it that some of us perform better under pressure while others are more likely to buckle under the load? Was it how the person was raised? Were they taught to believe in themselves? Did their parents and teachers push them to keep trying when they encountered obstacles?

We tend to assume that one’s ability to work well under stress is a function of character. But that’s not what brain research is telling us. It may be much more about differences in how our brains work–differences that are dictated by genetics.

A PET scan of a brain showing a very high level of activity (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have identified a specific gene, the COMT gene, that may dictate more than anything else whether we are the ‘push through the stress and shine’ type of person, or the one who collapses on the floor and feels like a failure when the load gets too heavy.

This may sound like bad news, but I’m not sure it is. Knowing that something is beyond our control can help us figure out a work-around. More on the real-life ramifications of this in a minute. First, let me try to boil the research down into a few paragraphs so I don’t bore you to tears.

This COMT gene controls how quickly a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is removed from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain where our most complex reasoning occurs–problem-solving, moral decisions, conflict resolution, anticipating long-term consequences, etc.

Brainstorming with the prefrontal cortex

(Okay, it’s a lame cartoon. Give me a break. it’s hard to make the brain funny!)

Dopamine is the brain chemical that helps us think clearly by inhibiting unwanted thoughts and allowing us to concentrate. But to do this, it has to be at optimal levels. Too little and we are overwhelmed and distracted by random thoughts. Too much and the thoughts we want to focus on are also inhibited, i.e., our brains are too shut down.

There are two versions of this COMT gene, one that clears dopamine away slowly and one that removes it quickly (it’s originally released by the neurons, i.e., nerve cells, in the brain). Under normal circumstances, people with the rapid-removal version are at a disadvantage; their dopamine levels are often too low. The folks with the slow-removal version often have an advantage, and do better in school for example, because overall their prefrontal cortex thinks more clearly.

However, things change when you introduce high stress levels.

The study that tied all this together was done in Taiwan where researchers determined which gene was present in 779 junior high school students who were about to take a difficult entrance exam that would determine the quality of high school education they would receive.

The students with the slow-removal gene tended to have higher grades in school than those with the fast-removal gene. But when the stress of this high-stakes test flooded their prefrontal cortex with dopamine, their brains couldn’t remove it fast enough. Now their thinking was impaired by too much dopamine.

The fast-removal students (the ones with the lower grades in school) scored an average of 8 percentage points higher than the slow-removal students on this test. Their brains could handle the stress better, get rid of the excess dopamine, and allow them to excel.

(from en.wikipedia, public domain)

So what are the real-life implications of this? If something is genetically programmed, we can’t change it, but we can learn to cope with it and work around it.

If you were one of those kids who crashed and burned on big tests and class presentations, or if you have a child who falls into this category, you should find it comforting to know that this is not a character flaw. Knowing something is not our fault can help us be more matter-of-fact about dealing with it. It is what it is.

So how do we deal with it?

1.  Stop beating up on yourself for not coping well with pressure. You’re not dumb, morally deficient or mentally ill. Your brain just works differently than those who thrive on stress.

2.  Be selective about the types of situations you expose yourself to. Forcing yourself to deal with high-stakes situations is a set-up for disaster. For example, marketing, where you have to give make-or-break presentations to clients on a regular basis, may not be the best career choice.

I suspect that both my son and I have the slow-dopamine-removal gene. We both got good grades in school but tended to score rather mediocre on high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT.

My son had his heart set on a certain college. But his SAT scores were not high enough to get a merit scholarship despite his almost 4.0 GPA. At our insistence, he took the test again, without much improvement (despite tutoring beforehand).

If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have insisted that he take the SAT a second time. I would have gone immediately to our alternate plan. We found a couple other schools that did not place as much importance on SAT scores. He got accepted into the honors program at one of them, and received a scholarship!

3.  Use stress management and relaxation techniques to help lower your stress level, and thus your dopamine production, in high-pressure situations.

More on how to do this over the next few weeks. The last two installments in this Stress Management series will be on relaxation techniques and one of the most important aspects of stress management, changing our cognitive and emotional interpretation of stressors.

So talk to me. How well do you perform under pressure?  Do you think you are a fast-dopamine-removal or slow-dopamine-removal person?

How can we help our kids adjust and learn to cope if they tend to fold under pressure?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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  • Reply
    Diane Capri
    March 25, 2013 at 10:37 am

    I love all this brain science stuff, Kassandra! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 25, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Glad to know there are others who find this as fascinating as I do, Diane. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    March 25, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Interesting. I’ve grown fascinated with how people cope with stress after my time in Afghanistan.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 25, 2013 at 11:27 am

      I can understand why, Kirsten. Talk about stress! It amazes me how resilient human beings are.

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    March 25, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Kass, this is SO cool! I had no idea. I’m definitely the slow-dopamine-clearing type, and I never tested well. As I got older, though, it got better. Probably maturity and keeping things in perspective so that the stress level isn’t too high. This is a real eye-opener. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 25, 2013 at 11:29 am

      I’ve gotten better with age too, Kathy. The putting things in a different perspective is a powerful stress management tool. I’m doing an entire post on that in the near future.

  • Reply
    Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson
    March 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    I am actually writing about how I feel like I suck right now, but my son NEVER feels like this. Maybe it is biology — in which case I’m glad he got the other brain. He NEVER quits or shuts down.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      I found this research really liberating, Renee. Now I know why I’ve always instinctively avoided high-pressure, highly-competitive situations. My excuse has been that I just don’t like competition, but now I know why. A lot of pressure shuts me down so I don’t perform well.

      I may do another post on our society’s tendency to place so much value on the ability to withstand tremendous levels of stress. Why should we be striving for that? So we can die young of a heart attack while clutching that brass ring?

  • Reply
    Kim Terry
    March 25, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Back in 1995, I survived at least three, if not four, highly stressful events: the death of one family member, major surgery, caregiving responsibility, and separation from my spouse. With prayer and a support system, I made it through.

    Place an exam– standardized or teacher-generated, in front of me, though, and my whole body rebels: itchy, runny nose/sneezes or palpitations and cold sweats.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 25, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      I’m wondering, Kim, if this genetic piece will explain why some people develop such test anxiety. Does it start with this flood of dopamine that the brain can’t get rid of and then feeling overwhelmed and panicked because you can’t think straight at a time when you most need to think straight?

      And it’s particularly frustrating when we know we are strong people who can handle other kinds of stressors.

  • Reply
    Lynette M. Burrows
    March 25, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Fascinating. Kass, is there such a thing as a mixed fast and slow removal of Domamine gene? I have high anxiety around high-stress events, but I manage to get through the situation (good test scores, professional situations, etc). Or maybe my fast-removal gene’s getting tired?

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 25, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      I don’t know if there’s some possible combination or middle ground with these genes, Lynette. I’m going to be watching for more research on the subject.

      If you can still think clearly during these high-stress events, then my guess is the anxiety may be coming from other things. There are so many factors that can contribute to it: basic personality, past experiences, etc. And our general tendency to be anxious (or not) is 50% due to genetics.

      You may be on to something there with the ‘getting tired’ though. I like to call it maturity. But maybe I’m just too old and tired to work up a sweat over the things that used to stress me out! 😉

  • Reply
    Catie Rhodes
    March 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

    I hate pressure. Loathe it. But the truth is, I act fast and won’t back down. I always thought, however, it was growing up the daughter of my father. He taught me to be tough, even when it hurts so bad I don’t think I can go another step.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 26, 2013 at 12:46 pm

      I think this research explains that paradox for us, Catie. We can be tough people but still dislike certain kinds of high-stakes pressure situations, because we know from experience it’s going to be an uphill battle to get our brains in gear.

      Confidence plays in here too. I think well on my feet in a crisis because I’m not extremely stressed, and I’m not extremely stressed because I’m confident I can handle the situation.

      But when you put me in a highly competitive situation, where the stress feels artificial and unnecessary to me, that’s when I feel like my brain turns to mush.

      Your dad sounds like an interesting man, btw. 🙂

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    March 30, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Very interesting how genetics plays such a huge part in this Kassandra. It’s funny. I thrive under stress. My brain clears and I am able to think with more clarity. Weird. Although, really, I am so done with stress. Love the info on the brain. Keep ’em coming! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 30, 2013 at 11:59 pm

      I’ll bet you have the fast removal gene then. So when you’re stressed, your dopamine levels are at optimal level and you think more clearly. But I hear you. Even with that benefit, stress gets old after awhile.

  • Reply
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