‘Warriors vs. Worriers’: Why Normally Productive People Get Snowed by Stress

This post by Andrew Shatte, PhD, Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium, first appeared  on HuffingtonPost.com

There’s an old saying that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Turns out that may be the only time they get going. New research suggests that while for many of us stress is debilitating and causes the wheels to fall off our performance, the “tough” need stress to rise to the occasion.

This same research may answer the question that thousands of parents have asked of me over the years — why is it that one of my kids thrives under pressure, while the other wilts? Turns out it may be in the genes, in fact a single gene, which codes for COMT.

A fascinating article in the New York Times (“Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart”) shines the spotlight on why, when the going gets tough, some of us are worriers and some become warriors.

Here’s Why the Slow Get Snowed

The prefrontal cortex is that part of the brain responsible for many of the capacities that lead us to succeed in the world — cognitive ability, problem-solving, reasoning, and planning.

In order to operate optimally, the prefrontal cortex needs a certain level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, like the level of oil in an engine. Too little dopamine and the engine, with all of its essential problem-solving abilities, can’t function well. Too much, as can happen in times of stress, and the engine chokes out.

And that’s where the gene comes in. Catechol-O-methyl transferase (COMT) is an enzyme that breaks down dopamine. The COMT gene comes in two variants, one that slowly removes dopamine and another that does it fast. Under calm circumstances, when stress is not pumping dopamine into the brain, the slow variant keeps dopamine levels up; and people with this variant function better than those with the fast variety. But when the going gets tough, under stress, when the brain is flooded with dopamine, those who can remove it quickly, the fast variant (“warriors”), are in the catbird seat, and the “slows” (“worriers”) are left in their wake.

According to the Times article, about a quarter of us have the slow variant and when we’re stressed, we become worriers. A quarter of us have the fast variant — we may not function as well as the “slows” when things are calm, but under stress we become warriors and easily outstrip the competition (about half of us are in a murky no-man’s-land).

What Can You Do About It?

Like all great research, and all great articles, the New York Times piece raises more questions than it answers. What do we do about our COMT inheritance? If we’re stuck with the “slow” variant, how do we learn to deal better with stress? It all comes down to how we think.

Take Julie. She’s a mom and corporate employee, juggling work and life, trying to do more with less, dealing with aging parents — all in an uncertain economic environment. In short, she’s stressed. And when it comes to COMT, she’s a “slow.” This means that when she’s under stress, her prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed and she falls prey to a number of what I call “Thinking Traps,” a thought pattern that keeps you stuck.

(Read more on how — and why — observing your thoughts is key.)

First, she succumbs to pessimism. She starts to think that the project she’s working on just won’t get done right or on time. She’ll get a negative employee evaluation. When the downsizing list is drawn up she’ll be on it, she’ll get laid off, and then she won’t be able to pay her mortgage. And on it goes.

Second, her big brain, usually so calm and collected, is now inexorably drawn to the permanent and pervasive causes of her problems, leaving her with little wriggle room for problem-solving.

Third, her emotion radar, which scans for negative emotions and is usually controlled by her prefrontal cortex, now begins firing unconstrained, miring her in anxiety, frustration, and anger.

I can’t help Julie with her COMT gene, but I can help her change the way she thinks. We all can. I have spent years working on a solution to do just that, called meQuilibrium, an online stress management tool. People can tell you all day long to “stress less” but it means nothing if you don’t have the tools to practice on, to actually shift the stress response.

In Singapore, schoolchildren are placed under enormous stress throughout the year as they take their standardized, school board exams. In one study there, my team and I found that as children became more resilient in their thinking, their test scores in math and English improved. We’re likely helping our COMT “slows,” who normally do so well, perform up to their usual standard or even surpass it when life throws them the inevitable curveballs.

Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. is the Chief Science Officer at meQuilibrium — a Boston-based organization that offers an online, stress management tool. He has been researching resilience and stress for over two decades and has developed effective programs for children, college students, and corporations. He is a co-creator of the meQuilibrium program.

Dr. Shatté is the founder and President of Phoenix Life Academy, a company that specializes in measuring and training in resilience. He is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Executive Education, a former professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves as a research professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona. Dr. Shatté has published prolifically in peer-reviewed journals and is the author of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.