Stress --The Good And The Bad

Why do some people excel when competing and do well on exams while others (although equally prepared) do not fare as well? Some interesting research suggests a possible answer in a single gene whose job is to clear dopamine from the pre-frontal cortex, the decision making part of the brain. This gene (COMT) has two variants: one produces an enzyme which removes dopamine quickly from the brain, the other one which removes it slowly. The brain works best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level.

Stress is also known to boost dopamine levels in the pre-frontal cortex. If a person has the slow-acting enzyme, too much stress remains in the brain, making the person anxious and less able to perform. On the other hand, individuals with the fast-acting enzyme need the stress to perform at their best. The latter look for some excitement in their everyday life; they are more likely to be bungee jumpers, roller-coaster riders, fast drivers, and gamblers.
People with the slow-acting enzyme are risk-averse. I must fall under this category; I prefer not to go to suspenseful movies, let alone on scary amusement-park rides. I also get incredibly nervous when I need to take a written driver's test.

However, there is help for those of us with the slow-acting enzyme. An experiment was held at Harvard University with undergraduate students preparing for an exam. Half the students were told the experiment was to study stress levels, the other half were told the same but also that feeling anxious would improve their test scores. The surprising finding was that the students who believed that stress was positive scored significantly higher. Their saliva tests did not show diminished stress levels, so it was just the belief that their stress was not an impediment that helped the students.

My purpose in writing about this topic is to encourage anxious people to take heart. If you know that your fears and worries need not take a toll on your performance, it won't. I remember thinking to myself when I was first teaching, or about to go on television or give a talk: I am taking my anxiety with me and saying to it, "I know you are here, but you will not control my behavior." Nowadays whenever feeling anxious, I say, "Thank you for enhancing my performance."

Outside of test situations, the advantages and disadvantages of slow- vs. fast-acting enzymes are reversed. Those with slow-acting enzymes are at an advantage; they can concentrate better, reason, solve problems, and foresee consequences to their actions. The others with slow-acting enzymes tend to be more lackadaisical and, therefore, need the extra stimulation in order to perform.

We are born with genes that trigger hormones that in turn influence our feelings, moods, and behaviors. We are also born with different abilities to control the way we react to these hormones. We have all heard the saying "mind over body." While this is true, the reverse--"body over mind"--is equally true. Now, according to research, we have an additional way to mitigate the effects of stress on our bodies and, therefore, our performance. All we need to do is become aware that as uncomfortable as we may feel, this stress can be beneficial. Some people are more prone to feel stress than others. On the other hand, some of us will have more of a key hormone (epinephrine) which increases our heart rate and another (cortisol) which raises our blood pressure. There are countless books, tapes, and articles on how to diminish the stress in our lives--from meditation to physical exercise, from owning a pet to having a social life, from eating right to getting enough sleep, etc. Certain individuals have an easier time accepting that stress is in fact helpful.

When all is said and done, the lesson to be learned here is that when you are under stress, you need to react the way professional competitors do--whether musicians or football players. How you interpret anxiety, the mental shift to perceive stress as energizing, will help you to focus better. So next time your heart is racing or you have butterflies in your stomach, think, "I have increased oxygen into my brain which will fuel me to excel."