The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about the genetic components of stress. The article, titled “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?”, discusses a series of studies examining how our genes determine the ways in which we react to stressful situations. The surprising conclusion: Students who exhibit symptoms of testing anxiety likely have a genetic reason for doing so, but they can overcome this predisposition.
The article focuses largely on a study done in Taiwan. In the study, blood samples were taken from 779 students who sat for Taiwan’s Basic Competency Test, a high stakes test administered to junior high school students that determines each student’s future education options. Using the blood samples, researchers classified students based on genotype.
The researchers were looking for a specific gene called the COMT gene. This gene controls the production of an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, conflict resolution, and problem solving. For our brains to work most efficiently dopamine levels must be carefully regulated – too much or too little dopamine harms the function of the prefrontal cortex. During periods of stress, the brain is flooded with dopamine, which can speed up the brain so much that it no longer functions properly.
There are two variations of the COMT gene. One variant removes dopamine slowly, while the other removes dopamine rapidly. In the study, researchers were attempting to determine whether the type of COMT gene could predict how students perform under stress. Once the researchers determined which type of gene each student had, they compared the students’ genotypes to their test scores. The researchers discovered that students with the fast-acting enzymes scored 8% higher than the students with slow-acting enzymes.
This would seem to suggest that students with the faster COMT gene have an academic advantage, but this is not necessarily the case. Other research has shown that in the absence of stress, people with the slow-acting enzyme generally perform better on cognitive tasks. It is only during periods of stress, when the brain is flooded with dopamine, that people with the slow-acting enzyme have trouble.
This is not to suggest that all people can be categorized as Worriers (those with the slow-acting enzyme) or Warriors (those with the fast acting enzyme). In reality, roughly 50% of the population possesses one of each type of gene, which means that most people have traits of both categories. But this research goes a long way towards explaining why a straight-A student can tank the SAT while a C-student earns a top score.
Further studies have shown that even those who fall firmly into the Worrier camp can overcome their stress-induced anxiety. This offers hope for the millions of students who suffer from testing anxiety. For Worriers, studies have shown that the best course of action is not to shield them from stressful situations, but to acclimate them to stress over time. By training Worriers to cope with stress, we can help them to better handle stressful situations.
Furthermore, Worriers can benefit from interpreting stress in a more positive light. In one notable Harvard study, researchers gathered students who were preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Before administering a practice test, researchers provided each student with a note explaining that the purpose of the study was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students were also given a note stating that research suggests that people who experience anxiety during a test actually perform better. Students who received this statement scored 50 points higher (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test.
Many might believe that the effect of the statement was to reduce anxiety, which resulted in higher scores. To rule out this possibility, researchers tested participants’ saliva to determine stress levels during the test. As the researchers expected, the students who received the statement about the benefits of anxiety still experienced the biological effects of stress during the test. In other words, the improved test scores were not a product of reduced stress, but rather a result of being better able to cope with the stress.
This suggests that students who suffer from testing anxiety can overcome their problem by a) practicing the art of overcoming stress by engaging in stressful activities more often, and b) training themselves to look at stress in a more positive light.
These are practices which C2 Education has long been preaching. We often see students who perform very well under normal circumstances, but then crash during high-stakes tests. For these students, the problem is not a lack of knowledge or skill, but an inability to cope with stress. These students benefit from participating in numerous practice tests, which has the dual advantages of both inoculating students against stressful testing situations and reducing anxiety by familiarizing students with the test. In addition to administering repeated practice tests, C2 Education’s teachers also attempt to help students cope with their anxiety by reinforcing the idea that stress can be a positive emotion when used as a motivator.
These lessons can also be applied at home. If you have a child who suffers from testing anxiety, do not shield him from the challenge of coping with stress. Instead, take steps to help your child become accustomed to stressful situations and teach him to interpret stress as a positive feeling rather than a negative feeling. With time and effort, even the biggest worrier can overcome anxiety.