Stress is an unavoidable companion of a busy modern life. But whether we thrive or break under pressure is determined by our genes.
Your boss is berating you.
You are about to deliver a speech to a huge crowd.
Your kid is having a tantrum in the middle of a grocery store.
Are you a bit unnerved but in control, or are your palms sweating and heart racing at the mere thought of such situations?
“Threats” to modern humans have less to do with being attacked by a hungry lion and more to do with screaming bosses and toddlers, but our bodies still respond the way they did millennia ago. The so-called fight-or-flight response causes a hormonal surge, readying your body to defend itself against real (or perceived) threats.
But why do some people keep their cool in any given situation while others crash at the first obstacle? The answer lies in our very own genetic makeup!
How genes affect your capacity for coping with stressful situations
Meet the COMT gene. It codes for a COMT enzyme which breaks down chemicals released during stress: dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine. You probably know adrenaline as “a stress hormone” and dopamine as “the pleasure hormone”, but they both play a significant role in your body’s response to stress.
Depending on what variant of the COMT gene you have, the COMT enzyme it produces can be either very active or not. And that determines if you are a warrior or a worrier.
When under stress, your body gets flooded with dopamine and adrenaline.
Warriors possess highly active COMT enzyme, and more of the enzyme means a bigger army breaking down the hormones and returning balance to your body.
Worriers have a decreased COMT enzyme activity, which means less enzyme and slower breakdown of dopamine and adrenaline. Not subdued by the enzyme the stress-inducing hormones will push your body beyond its optimal levels, causing you to fold under pressure.
Why is it important to know if I have the warrior gene?
Like anything in life, moderate amounts of stress are beneficial – the release of dopamine and adrenaline sharpens our attention and increases performance. But modern life is a ticking stress-bomb. It can become overwhelming, and understanding exactly how it works on you is a valuable tool for effective stress management.
If you’re a warrior, you are better at handling stress and pain, and more emotionally resilient. But you only really come alive in extreme situations, when your brain gets flooded with stimulating dopamine.
If you’re a worrier, you may have trouble coping with stress and pain, but you also tend to be more creative, have better focus, attention, and fine motors skills when you are not under stress.
Unless you plan on moving to a secluded corner of the Earth, you can’t outrun stress. And you definitely can’t change your genes. But knowing if you carry the warrior gene or not helps you understand your behaviour and predict your reaction to stress. And with that knowledge, you can learn to respond in a healthy way to all the challenges life throws your way!