Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Why some people perform extremely well under stress

Do you know one of these individuals who are at their best when really under stress or who even need extreme pressure to perform well? Maybe you are even one of these? The reason for this ability is likely to lie in our genes. But even people without it can improve their capabilities of dealing with stress. What are the basic mechanisms and how can we act on them?

For our brain functioning, the neurotransmitter dopamine is important. It is produced and released by the neurons in our brain. Having an elevated, but not too high level of dopamine helps us execute cognitive tasks like for example planning, concentrating or problem solving. In order to maintain cognitive functioning, the dopamine has to be removed again. There are two types one enzyme that serve this purpose, one clears the neurotransmitter slowly, the other one quickly. Which type we have is genetically determined.

Under normal conditions, people with the slow-acting enzyme have an advantage because their dopamine level is slightly higher than the dopamine level of individuals with the fast-acting enzyme. Thus, they are better at planning, concentrating or problem solving under normal conditions. Under stress, however, the brain is flooded with dopamine. Under such conditions, individuals with the fast-acting enzyme have an advantage because the enzyme brings them back to the optimal dopamine level more quickly.

People with the fast-acting enzyme are often called “Warrior” because they can handle threatening environments well, whereas individuals with the slow-acting enzyme are called “Worriers” because they are good at complex planning.

An article in the New York Times this post is based on gives a more detailed overview of the topic.

What does this mean? Depending on what type of enzyme we have, some of us perform best under stress, whereas others perform best without stress. Some of us have both types of the enzyme, so they will find themselves somewhere in between these two extremes. This means that we should look for the level of stimulation that suits our genetic make-up. But research also found that Worriers can train their stress-resistance. Furthermore, it seems to be beneficial for Worriers to make a mental shift in situations that cause anxiety in them: see the anxiety as something energising and not as something debilitating. And in fact, the state of anxiety an energising component, e.g. because it increases the blood flow and thus the oxygen made available to our brain and other regions of our body. Thus, although the level of stimulation at which our brain functions at its best is pre-determined, there is a lot we can do to create the optimal working conditions for ourselves. It means knowing your optimal level of stimulation and then adapting your environment as well as your mindset to it!

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