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We all get stressed out once in a while but not everyone responds to pressure in the same way. Our lives, upbringing and experiences can all have an impact but research has shown that certain genes can make us more sensitive to life’s stresses and strains.

We all get stressed out once in a while but not everyone responds to pressure in the same way. Our lives, upbringing and experiences can all have an impact but research has shown that certain genes can make us more sensitive to life’s stresses and strains.

 

Fight or flight

When we experience a shock or sense a threat, the body responds with a primitive reflex. Chemicals are released that are designed to help us to survive. These catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) boost the heart rate, raise the blood pressure and improve respiratory function to help us fight harder and run faster. They also work to sharpen our vision, speed up our impulses and make us super-sensitive to any perceived threat.

As cavemen, whether we stayed to fight or ran to hide, the stress hormones would have been safely metabolized. In the modern world, with tension caused by traffic jams or computer failure, the body can be alerted to danger with no way of expending the pent up energy and aggression.

 

The genetic difference

For many individuals stress can be good, sharpening their focus and driving them to perform better. But other people just fall apart under the pressure. How can the same level of stress elicit such different physical, psychological and emotional responses?

The answer is down to genetics. We all have differing capabilities of breaking down and getting rid of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This system is controlled by the COMT gene, which regulates the body’s metabolism and detoxification of these chemical transmitters.  Some of us have COMT genes that clear the brain of dopamine rapidly and efficiently and others have a slower and more steady response.

 

Slow COMT genes

When people with slow COMT genes become overly stressed their bodies are unable to get rid of the catecholamines quickly enough. Dopamine can build up in the brain’s frontal lobe.  This overload may cause the classic stress symptoms of anxiety, worry, panic attacks and insomnia. In severe cases it is thought to be associated with mental health problems including obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

 

Fast COMT genes

Individuals with fast acting COMT genes were able to clear the brain of stress chemicals quickly and efficiently and were shown in tests to be more adept at performing well and coping with pressure. However in low stress situations, the lack of stimulation meant that they could fail to get work done effectively.

 

What does this mean?

This can seem depressing if genetic testing shows that you have a slow COMT gene. But the good news is that you can alter the impact your genes have on your body.

 

Research conducted in Taiwan suggests that those with slow COMT genes performed significantly better than those with fast genes in cognitive tests. When they weren’t in very stressful situations they had bright, alert minds and better memories. So by learning to deal with stress, exercising regularly, reflecting positively on past successes you can start to see potential threats as challenges and cope better with the pressures of life.

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Stress Genetics Genes DNA COMT genes Lifestyle

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