Stress is an unavoidable companion of a busy modern life, but some thrive under it, and others fall apart. Discover how genes affect your response to stress and how that knowledge can help turn stress from enemy to ally.
An important job deadline is getting closer and closer.
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?
What threatens us 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, preparing 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? Part of the answer lies in our very own genetic makeup!
In this article:
What goes on in our bodies when we're under stress?
In a biological sense, stress is the body's response to disrupted homeostasis (think of it as your body's inner balance). When homeostasis gets thrown off balance, your body sounds the alarm.
Stressors, factors causing stress, can be:
- physiological (you cut your finger on a knife, you catch a cold) or
- psychological (you get yelled at, you worry about losing a job).
Your body responds with several changes led by the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, but it all begins in your brain.
When you confront a stressor, your senses (eyes, ears, pain receptors in your skin) send the signal to the amygdala. As part of the brain involved in emotional processing, it interprets the signals, and if it perceives them as dangerous, it activates another part of the brain – the hypothalamus.
Imagine the hypothalamus as a command centre with an open line to the rest of your body. It can control involuntary functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure. After the hypothalamus registers the amygdala's warning, it activates your adrenal glands.
The two triangle-shaped glands that sit atop your kidneys respond by releasing hormones called catecholamines (adrenaline or epinephrine, dopamine, norepinephrine). Carried by the blood, they hurry to different parts of your body, causing physiological changes we associate with stress.
The most common are:
- increased pulse rate and blood pressure, sending blood to your vital organs.
- quicker breathing, which allows lungs to take in more oxygen.
- extra oxygen puts your brain on high alert, sharpening your senses.
- release of glucose and fats, ready to give your body an energy boost.
Such readiness can mean the difference between life and death. Or at least, they used to for early humans. What about today?
Stress or »stress«?
Have you ever experienced your body reacting seemingly on its own?
An insect zooms towards your face, and a hand moves to block it without your conscious thought.
Or jumping at the rustle in the bushes before you have a chance to realise it's probably just a bird.
The stress response isn't even giving us a chance to consciously process what is happening but already reacting. That's because our amygdala and hypothalamus have already put things in motion before our brain's visual centre has a chance to process what it saw.
For our early ancestors, such an effective warning system was a life-saver. If an early human went into the bushes to investigate if it's really a bird or something more sinister, it likely wouldn't end well for him.
Unfortunately, our defence system is so good it can cross the line to overprotective. Family difficulties, work deadlines, going on a date, speaking in front of an audience are hardly life-threatening, but we still respond in much the same way as if faced with real danger.
And as those perceived threats keep appearing and stressful situations keep piling, activating our stress response over and over, it takes a toll on our health.
Let's discuss why we should aim to minimise how much stress we're exposed to.
Why is stress bad?
The stress response has developed to improve our ability to cope with situations that require defence. It was meant to give us a short-term advantage – avoid danger.
But evolution did not intend stress to become an integral part of our lives! Because it has adverse long-term effects, modern-day stress quickly went from life-saving to life-threatening.
Research has linked constant stress to complex health problems such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression. That's why it's crucial you recognize overstress and know how to manage it. Read this article to learn 12 ways to put stress levels under control!
We don't react to stress the same way. Some people get anxious just thinking about those scenarios and can completely freeze in stressful situations. Part of the reason is in the way our body is wired to respond to stress. And that is written in our genes.
Here's a closer look into our genes.
How genes affect your capacity for coping with stressful situations
Meet the COMT gene. It codes for a COMT enzyme that 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 (or allele) of the COMT gene you have, the COMT enzyme it produces can be either very active or not. And that – your phenotype – determines if you are considered a warrior or a worrier.
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.
How does knowing my genes help me?
Like anything in life, moderate amounts of stress are beneficial, sharpening our attention and improving 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. So better performance can come at a price – feeling uninspired and lacking motivation when you're not presented with any challenge.
If you're a worrier, you may find it more difficult to cope with stress and pain, but you also tend to be more creative, have better focus, fine motors skills, and are better at attention tasks when you are not under pressure and your dopamine levels are optimal.
Discovering your genes with our DNA test helps you set up your or warrior strategy or worrier strategy
Stress – from enemy to ally
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 stress reaction.
Armed with this knowledge, you can turn stress from your enemy into your ally and learn how to manage it and adapt your lifestyle and mindset to use stress to your advantage.
The end result? Learning to respond effectively to all the challenges life throws your way!