In an earlier post I distinguished between “breakers”, “blossomers” and “benders” when under pressure.
Even with years of preparation and training, some people crack under pressure, while others seem to thrive on pressure and adrenalin. Can we modify this important behaviour under stress? My opinion is a clear “yes”. It is not an easy task as these behavioral patterns are resistant to change.
My idea is that there is a genetic factor involved: some people possess the “warrior gene” (the “blossomers”), while others possess the “worrier gene” (the “breakers”). While research in this field is still in its infancy some remarkable facts have come to the surface.
I will simplify this concept: a gene is responsible for the production of an enzyme called COMT. This COMT is breaking down adrenalin. There are different forms of this gene.
There is Val-Val 158, Met-Val 158 and Met-Met 158 (Val stands for the amino acid Valine and Met for Methionine).
The Val-Val form creates the COMT enzyme with the highest activity which means: adrenaline is broken down fast, resulting in a low baseline level of adrenalin. These are the “warriors”. The Met-Met form creates the COMT enzyme with the lowest activity, which results in a high baseline level of adrenaline. These are the “worriers”. The Val-Met form comes somewhere in the middle. 25% of the population have the Val-Val or Met-Met form and 50% of the population have the mixed Val-Met form,
What does this mean in real life?
In normal life we don’t need that much adrenalin to function normally. But during a challenging task , let’s say getting ready for an Olympic final or being in a fire fight In Afghanistan, the adrenalin level increases in everybody. For everybody there is an optimal level of adrenalin. The worrier is probably already at his/her optimal level therefore the automatic increase in adrenalin in a challenging situation will push him/ her over the edge. Their hands get sweaty, their muscles start shaking, motor skills start to suffer, their brain is working too hard with incoherent thinking as a result and they suffer from tunnel vision. Looking at the warrior, whose adrenaline levels are normally low, the same challenging situation will cause an increase in adrenalin up to the optimal level. They say they feel “in flow”, perceive a heightened state of awareness, they are “in the zone”.
This way our genetics partially determine how one is going to function under pressure. Of course many more genes, neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes are involved in our behaviour.
The activity of these genes and enzymes can be modified, so genes in this case do not have the final word.
Conclusion: some people have a genetic disposition giving them an advantage and some are at a disadvantage while performing under pressure. But at least it is an interesting piece of information which opened the black box of our behaviour under pressure.
It doesn’t stop there. Recently genetic research in twins showed there is a relationship between certain genes and becoming a leader. Can even speak about a “leadership gene”?
De Neve, J-E; Mikhaylov, S; Dawes, C.T; Christakis, N.A; Fowler, J.H: Born to Lead? A Twin Design and Genetic Association Study of Leadership Role Occupancy; Leadership Quarterly, Vol.24, No.1, 2013, pg.45-60.