Published on October 31st, 2019 | by Dr. Doug Pucci0
Kids Under Pressure: Worrier vs. Warrior
by Doug Pucci
Two siblings that both do well in school can have opposite responses under pressure. For instance, they both do well in class participation, homework, regular quizzes and tests, and written reports. However, when standardized tests are announced, one child stresses heavily about them for more than a week before the test, losing sleep and experiencing headaches, stomach aches, and nausea. He fears that his classes haven’t taught him everything he needs to know in order to pass these important tests.
Normally a child that likes going to school, as test day approaches, he continually asks to stay home. The other child, on the other hand, becomes energized and finds test-taking exhilarating, a chance to shine and show all he’s learned.
The question is how two siblings can react so completely differently to pressure and stress. Researchers have questioned why kids respond differently under pressure, so for an answer, they turned to a population of approximately 200,000 10th grade students living in Taiwan. Researchers drew blood samples from 779 of those students after they took a standardized competency test.
Unlike previous tests focusing on stress, this test zeroed in on the COMT gene, an enzyme-creating gene that among other things, removes dopamine from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That area of the brain is responsible for conflict resolution, decision-making, abstract thinking, planning, working memory and more. Too much or too little dopamine in the prefrontal cortex can interfere with these functions, either suppressing them or magnifying them (neither extreme is good); it’s the job of COMT to maintain the correct dopamine level for optimal functionality. There are two variants of the COMT gene: one creates enzymes that remove dopamine quickly and the other creates enzymes that clear it slowly.
In the Taiwanese study, researchers discovered that even though students with slower enzymes had higher IQs, those with faster-moving enzymes but lower IQs did better on the tests by 8 percent. These results showed that cognitive advantages were actually reversed because stress negatively impacted the outcomes of the students with higher IQs and slower-moving enzymes.
The “warrior” and “worrier” classifications created by researchers show certain attributes. Warriors (fast-moving enzymes) respond well to pressure, threatening situations and deadlines; but performance can suffer with repetitive tasks and lack of pressure. Worriers (slow-moving enzymes) are better with complex planning, have higher working memory and cognitive advantages in stress-free environments.
COMT genes are inherited; it’s estimated that about half the population has a mix of both warrior and worrier genes, a quarter have only warrior genes and the remaining quarter have only worrier genes. But genetic predisposition doesn’t have to dictate a response to short-term stressful situations. Research studies are showing that with training, worriers can perform as well as warriors in high-stress environments, such as in combat roles. Research psychologist Quinn Kennedy, of the Naval Postgraduate School, found that taxing worriers without overwhelming them allows them to adjust to and manage specific repeated stressors, “even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”
A combination of exercise and dietary strategies can also help modulate dopamine levels in the brain, but the right combination and correct type of exercise needs to be determined for each individual.
Dr. Doug Pucci, DC, FAAIM, adheres to a functional medicine approach with patients and believes in treating underlying, root causes of disease. In practice, he provides nutrition, advanced testing for hormones and gut microbiome, blood testing, epigenetics, and brain/body well-being. For more information, call 201-261-5430 or visit GetWell-Now.com.