The way we respond to stressful situations may be written in our genes.
I was researching and writing an article about stress last week and, as ever, the deadline had to loom so close that it could have kicked me up the backside, before my fingers started tapping diligently on the keyboard.
I always thought it was just laziness, or a singular talent for procrastination but it seems that it might actually be written in my DNA.
Let’s face it, we all get stressed out once in a while but not everyone responds to pressure in the same way. Our lives, upbringing and experiences can all have an impact but it also seems that certain genes can make us more sensitive to life’s stresses and strains.
Fight or flight
It’s all down to our inner caveman. When we get shocked or feel threatened, the body responds with a primitive reflex, releasing chemicals designed to help us to survive. These catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) boost the heart rate, raise the blood pressure and improve respiratory function to help us fight harder and run faster. They also sharpen our vision, speed up our impulses and make us super-sensitive to any threat; we become a sort of super-hero version of ourselves!
This was all fine and dandy when we were facing sabre-toothed tigers. Whether we stayed to fight or ran to hide, the stress hormones would have been safely metabolised. But now when we’re stressed out in a traffic jam, on the phone to a call-centre or facing a deadline, the body gets all revved up with no way of burning off all the pent up aggression and energy.
The genetic difference
For lots of us, stress can be good, sharpening our focus and helping us perform better. But others just fall apart under the pressure. How can the same level of stress elicit such different physical, psychological and emotional responses?
The answer is down to genetics. We all have differing capabilities of breaking down and getting rid of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This system is controlled by the COMT gene; in some of us, the brain is cleared of the catecholamines super fast, while others have a more slow and steady response.
When people with slow COMT genes become stressed, their bodies just can’t get rid of the catecholamines quickly enough. Dopamine builds up in the brain’s frontal lobe causing the classic stress symptoms of anxiety, worry, panic attacks and insomnia. In severe cases it is thought to be associated with mental health problems including OCD and schizophrenia.
Those of us with fast acting COMT genes are able to clear the brain of stress chemicals quickly and efficiently and have been shown in tests to perform better under pressure. However in low stress situations, the lack of stimulation means that they could fail to get work done effectively. Errrrrrm, sound familiar?
So, is that just all a bit depressing? Some people are destined to do terribly in exams and others won’t perform without the imminent threat of danger.
It seems that our genes don’t have to be our destiny. In tests under low levels of pressure, those with slow COMT genes performed way better. When they weren’t stressed, or if they were told that feeling anxious would make them perform better, they had bright, alert minds and better memories. So by learning to manage feelings of stress they were able to really harness their true potential.
And if, like me, you know that you need a little extra push, you can set yourself targets and deadlines so that you’re not up burning the midnight oil, again!
My article was for a company called DNAfit, who test individuals’ DNA profiles to develop personalised health plans. I was paid for the work, although I was given free rein on what to write and not expected to blog about it, it just really captured my interest.