A pioneering study conducted in Taiwan shows that how a person handles stress lies in the COMT gene, which regulates and clears dopamine in the pre-frontal cortex. There are two variations on this gene, one fast-acting ('Warriors') and one slow ('Worriers'). About half of all people have a mixture of both, a quarter have the slow kind and a quarter have the fast-acting kind.
Dopamine is an enzyme that makes neurons fire at full throttle, so under normal circumstances, those with the slow-acting enzyme have an advantage in cognitive tasks and generally perform better than those with the fast-acting gene, the NY Times reports. They can reason, solve problems and foresee consequences better. What makes them worriers, is that when subject to stress this advantage disappears and actually works against them.
Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine, which is great in small amounts, but worriers, with their slow-acting enzymes, can't handle the sudden influx.
At the end of their middle school education in May, Taiwanese children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students, which determines the high school they're qualified to enroll in. The test is incredibly difficult and requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry, and testing lasts for two days. Many students prepare for it throughout their entire middle school careers, attending cram schools almost every night.
Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University, took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the exam, then matched the student's genotype to their score. On average, those with the slow-acting enzyme scored 8 percent lower than those with the rapid-response type.
Those with the fast-acting COMT variation are able to react quickly and instantaneously to stressful situations-- in fact, they thrive on it. Everyday life is comparatively dull, because their dopamine levels are reduced too quickly. While worriers tend to show higher scores on IQ exams, in real-world applications such as the Basic Competency exam in Taiwan, they melt down under pressure while warriors rise to the occasion.
But what matters most, according to research by Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, is usually a person's take on the experience. By interpreting anxiety positively and framing it as a challenge, people who were optimistic about their stress had blood flow to the brain increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute.
Short term stress, Jeremy Jamieson emphasizes, is not a negative thing. For warriors, it provides the rush they need to function at their peak and for worriers, stress in small doses allows them to gain experience and confidence needed to deal with their anxiety-- which can help them perform better later in life. Through gradual inoculation to stress, the slow-acting enzyme will actually enhance their performance.