Published on Sept. 21, 2017
How are you programmed to handle stress?
Beat the Clock
It’s Friday afternoon and I’m sitting at my desk feverishly typing away at my laptop. It’s twelve minutes before my deadline and I’m actually not sure if I’m going to make it. Yet that thought brings a smile to my face as I feel the procrastinator's rush flood my veins. My heart rate rises in response, accelerating the spread of the chemical cocktail responsible for my inexplicable euphoric intoxication.
Switch tabs. Gmail. Click. Compose. Click. Address. Tab. Subject. Tab. “Dear Mr…. Please find attached…” Drag. Drop. Click. Send. BOOM! 4:59. I made it with at least 28 seconds to spare.
I’m sitting in a study room with my group for a class project. I’m bored to tears and it’s not because of the subject matter. It’s because the deadline for the project we are working on is a full two months away. What in the name of life am I doing here right now?
I try to choke back a yawn as our self-appointed project lead attacks the whiteboard like he’s auditioning for Goodwill Hunting. By the time he gives the marker a rest, he is out of breath. He turns to face us. I’m fairly certain it wasn’t until that moment that he realized he just spent the last 17 minutes yelling directly at the whiteboard. I try for a moment to imagine what it’s like inside his mind and quickly give up. We are just way too different.
The look on his face says it all. It’s that look of somebody who’s pretty sure they are going to implode; the look of the overwhelmed. He clearly needs a hug. I stand up and walk over to him wearing my best reassuring smile, open my arms and squeeze the living stress out of him. I let him go, holding him at arm’s length. He releases a big sigh and a visible wave of relief washes over his entire body, starting with his face. The tension in his shoulders vanishes and his arms drop a full inch in response.
“So. Let’s start again from the beginning. What is the first thing we need to do?” I ask in a calm, even voice. He takes a full, centering breath and, this time with a smile, he lays out his plan…
Grapes for Dinner
We all know that person. The one who just gets things done. The one whose resume looks like it should be the combined efforts of at least three different people. Whenever I feel like kicking myself in the proverbial pants, I go to her LinkedIn page just to prove to myself what an underachiever I am. Oh what’s this? Oh, she’s on her third start up now. Super.
AND she’s having another baby?!?!
**Goes to kitchen. Opens bottle of wine. Leaves kitchen without a glass.**
Lost somewhere in the fuzz between “how?” and “why?” I begin to take comfort in the fact that we are all just born different. There is no more sense in comparing myself to her as there is in comparing myself to Michael Phelps. Even if I had the preposterous idea to spend 84% of my waking hours in a pool, it would never end with me anywhere near the starting block of an Olympic swim meet.
Genetics is a thing. It is real and it matters.
It turns out that in addition to giving some of us the aquatic abilities of a chlorine dolphin, our genetics are also responsible for how we respond to stress. Specifically, it controls how our bodies break down the fight-or-flight chemicals that flood our brain in response to a stressful event. These chemicals are called catecholamines. They include epinephrine, norepinephrine, and -my personal favorite- dopamine. Left unchecked, these chemicals would overrun our brains and we’d be left in a near catatonic state. Thankfully, our brains are equipped to handle these chemical invaders by producing an enzyme called Catechol O-methyltransferase. Don’t worry, I’m not going to type that again, since science says we can just refer to it as COMT.
Here’s where genetics comes into play: How you respond to stress depends on which variant of the gene you have that encodes your body’s production of COMT.
Me, for example, I can’t even get off the couch until we are dealing with some life -or at least income- threatening situation. But once I get going, my brain drinks up the stress juice with gusto. My academic life was mostly a lot of waiting followed by flurries of eleventh hour heroics that left me feeling exhausted but also with a rush like I just finished a six-hour surf session in Hawaii. This is because (as mentioned above) I love me some dopamine. Unfortunately, my brain is really good at producing COMT so I generally have less dopamine floating around in my noggin when I’m just hanging around. So I surf sketchy waves, I climb big rocks, and I procrastinate until it gets exciting. They call this the “Stress Is Enhancing” mindset. Is. It. Ever.
My dear friend the project lead, well, he’s the opposite. For him, stress is a debilitator. His brain doesn’t quite know what to do with the chemical cocktail of catecholamines that invade like a barbarian horde every time stress hits. His brain isn’t good at producing COMT, so his brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, is constantly thrashing around in the stuff like a kid in water wings at the deep end of the pool. Then he encounters stress and it can feel like it’s game over. Luckily, all is not lost for these timid souls: research has shown that these people can benefit greatly from human touch during stressful times. This is why that bro-hug worked so well at calming him down.
Your Hidden Superpower
Most of us -or should I say- most of you, believe it or not, are the third kind. You don’t need to play Russian roulette with your todo list, nor do you freeze up like a deer in headlights when the going gets tough. Sure you may have other reasons for putting off tasks or feeling overwhelmed, but your body’s innate ability to deal with stress isn’t one of them.
You are actually coded to kick ass.
Want to know which stress-style you have? Order your Health Action Plan from Toolbox Genomics today!
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