I come from a “type-A” family with lots of over-achievers. So, when I came across this article, I shared it with my sisters. An interesting conversation ensued about how each of us manages stress. For me, I think a little stress is motivating. Where do you fall in the spectrum?
Thanks to Kim Marshall and The Marshall Memo, for his synopsis of this article.
In this fascinating New York Times Magazine article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman analyze why some people go to pieces under pressure while others thrive in competitive, stressful situations – why some people are worriers while others are warriors. “Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed,” say Bronson and Merryman, “and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition – it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.”
Genetically predisposed? Yes, it turns out there’s a gene involved in stress tolerance – the COMT gene. It carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the pre-frontal cortex of our brains. We work best when dopamine is maintained at a Goldilocks level – not too much and not too little. There are two variants of the COMT gene: one builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine; the other builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine.
All people carry the genes for one variant or the other, or a combination of both.
Those who carry the slower dopamine-removing COMT gene have a cognitive advantage under normal conditions. But their stronger reasoning power (problem-solving, complex thought, foreseeing consequences, executive functioning) deteriorates under stress, when their frontal cortex is flooded with dopamine. Unable to clear the dopamine fast enough, their performance sinks to suboptimal. Conversely, people with the faster dopamine-removing COMT gene do less well in everyday conditions but excel under stress – they’re able to clear the dopamine and keep their brains functioning at optimal levels.
A study of thousands of Taiwanese students taking an exceedingly high-stakes national examination found that those with the slow-acting enzymes (the worriers) scored 8 percent lower than those with fast-acting enzymes. In this exam, lots of A students literally traded places with B students.
People born with the fast-acting enzymes (the warriors) “actually need stress to perform their best,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Under everyday conditions, they tend to under-perform, but stress raises their dopamine level. “They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis,” say Bronson and Merryman. “Their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.”
How are the COMT genes distributed? Since we get one from our fathers and one from our mothers, one quarter of children have only the slow-enzyme variant, one quarter have only the fast-enzyme variant, and half have a mixture of both. Does that mean those with the slow-enzyme gene are forever cursed? Actually not. According to studies of Navy SEALs, pilots, and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, worriers can learn to handle stress with the proper training and preparation. In fact, say Bronson and Merryman, shielding slow-enzyme worriers from stress “could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors.” What they need is stress inoculation: put them in worry-producing situations without overwhelming them and give them enough time to recover. “Training, preparation, and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse,” they say.
One of the most surprising research findings is that when students get certain messages before a big test, it affects how they label stress – and that improves their performance. In an experiment at Harvard, undergraduates about to take a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) practice test were given a short note saying the purpose of the study was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half the students (the experimental group) were given an additional note saying that recent research suggests that “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” It advised students that if they felt nervous, “you shouldn’t feel concerned… simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”
Students who received the second note scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section than the control group on the practice test (out of a possible 800 points). On the real GRE, those who received the don’t-worry notes scored 65 points higher. The same experiment was replicated with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college. Did the notes make students in the experimental group more relaxed? Not at all. Researchers took saliva samples and found that students were just as nervous but they processed their anxiety differently, transforming it into a positive force that drove better performance.
Another researcher, Wendy Berry Mendes, a psychology professor at the University of California/San Francisco, asks us to examine the mental state of high-school students waiting outside an SAT testing site. Some are in a “threat state” – shoulders hunched, rubbing their hands, stamping their feet. Inside their bodies they are experiencing vasoconstriction – a tightening of the smooth muscles that line their blood vessels. Their blood pressure is rising, their breathing is shallow, oxygenated blood levels and energy supplies drop, and hormone changes make them more fearful of making mistakes.
Other students – their shoulders back, chests open, rising on their toes, blood vessels dilated – are in a “challenge state.” Their hormones are suppressing fear networks in their brains, their brains may be getting as much as two liters of extra blood a minute, and they’re excited to get started on the test.
“As the doors to the test center open,” say Bronson and Merryman, “the line between challenge and threat is thin. Probably nothing induces a threat state more than feeling you can’t make any mistakes. Threat physiology can be activated with the sense of being judged, or anything that triggers the fear of disappointing others. As a student opens his test booklet, threat can flare when he sees a subject he has recently learned but hasn’t mastered. Or when he sees a problem he has no idea how to solve.”
Genetic differences aside, the key difference is between competition that challenges and competition that threatens. “Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety,” say Bronson and Merryman. “Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, ‘Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.’” So the trick is to give students practice at competition and help them develop the right mindset. “Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik of the American Psychological Association. In-class spelling bees, science fairs, and chess teams all help to build skills in handling stress productively. A student’s science project might not be the winner, the judging of their project might be stressful and scary, but the experience builds skills and performance.
“Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit Warriors and Worriers equally,” conclude Bronson and Merryman. “The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress – they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.”
“Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 10, 2013, http://nyti.ms/14EbYAG