Genetic Variants That Can Determine Whether We Have a “Worrier Brain” or A “Warrior Brain” and What We Can Do About Them.

This post is based on an article I recently found in the New York Times. It makes several important claims:

  1. There are two variants of a specific gene that influence how quickly we recover from stressful experiences.
  2. We get one from our mother and the other from our father.
  3. The pattern of these genes we inherit determines whether we will be “worriers” or “warriors”.
  4. Worriers are people who have to struggle with stressful experiences and warriors are people for whom stress reactions quickly pass by.
  5. Whether we have the genetic pattern that gives us a warrior brain or a worrier brain, there is at least one simple technique that can make us deal efficiently with stress.

First, I want to acknowledge that I am skeptical about much of the brain-mind research that has come to be widely accepted. I don’t want to get into that because it is way too technical. But I often ask, “What good does it do for people dealing with a stress problem to learn that they were genetically doomed to have trouble with stressors, e.g.to be a worrier?”

Today, Debbie had an opening in her usually busy schedule, and called to chat.  I was trying to write this post, and I posed this question to her. She paused briefly, and then said “It helps people to understand why they have to struggle with things that other people handle with apparent ease.” Good answer.

So here is my condensed description of the genetic issue. Dopamine is a brain chemical that is released in the lower part of the frontal lobes of our brain. The sooner it is cleared out, the sooner we recover from the stress. This is because that lower frontal part of the brain can control the parts of the brain that produce responses that are “raw emotions”.

We all have a gene that determines how fast we clear Dopamine out of that part of our brain, and, as we said above, one variant leads to quicker, actually something like 40 times quicker, cleanup of the dopamine “mess”.

For people whose brains cleanup that mess slowly, their brains and minds are likely to be overwhelmed by the surge.

The following is an important part of this study: the effects of the slow acting system have been demonstrated in a real-life stressful situation. Young people in Taiwan take a test that has a major influence on the trajectory of their lives. Those with the slow acting system score on average 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting system.

However, people with the slow acting gene can handle extreme stress as long as they are well-trained. Even some Navy Seals have worrier genes.

This concept that training can trump genetic effects (or lifelong bad habits) is right at the core of our belief in the value of resilience training.

What kind of training do people with worrier brains need to function as well as those with warrior brains?

  • Exposure to stress challenges. Worriers need to be taxed without being overwhelmed, and then have time for recovery. “Training, preparation, and repetition defuse the worrier’s curse”.
  • Labeling of stress can determine reactions to it. If worriers see their feelings of stress as something that can improve their performance, their performance improves. They learn to view the feelings we usually call “stress” as “excitement”.

We plan to deal with the effects of such labeling or “reappraisal” in a future post.

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