I’m a world-class worrier. Whether it’s the changing climate, the growing income divide, the worsening drought, GMOs, EMFs, HMOs, whatever. Name it, I worry about it.
But according to Mic.com, I’m also a Warrior.
As an athlete, I’m better able to withstand more pain and suffering than most. I’ve beaten the shit out of my body after five marathons, several half-marathons and countless 10Ks, but I always came back for more. During competition, when I’m most under duress, I can somehow put the pain out of my mind.
This skill is not unusual for endurance athletes. Just ask American cyclist Andrew Talansky, who competed in this year’s Tour de France. In an interview with ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford after the race, Talansky said, "That day showed me when I need it, there's more in my body, more than I can do than even I can believe sometimes."
It turns out an athlete’s superhero tolerance for stress isn’t science fiction, or a gift from God, or from something in the water. It’s actually something found in the brain: a hardcore, diehard, no pain-no gain gene named COMT, the gene responsible for determining whether one is a worrier or a warrior.
Apparently, there is science behind the human capacity for suffering.
In a NY Times article titled “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart,” researchers say the COMT gene “carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain where we make decisions, anticipate future consequences, and resolve conflicts.”
Bear with me while I try to break this down.
In what sounds a lot like “flight or fight” syndrome, or maybe just regular old grace under pressure, the article goes on to say “Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.”
Researchers estimate that in the U.S., 16% of people are worriers, 36% are warriors, and the remaining 48% are somewhere in between.
A number of research studies are looking at COMT, including several involving the American military and post-traumatic stress disorder. Early results show that those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress – as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior.
So take heart, all you hand-wringers: it’s not all doom and gloom. There are cognitive benefits to being a Worrier: you have great reasoning and problem solving ability, you orchestrate complex thought, and you foresee consequences.
A study conducted by Quinn Kennedy, a research psychologist at the Naval Postgraduate School at Brown University, backs this up by correlating the gene with pilot performance.
After putting pilots through a series of flight-simulator tests (including turbulence, oil pressure problems, crosswinds, etc.) Kennedy found that the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors. “Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in, and their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.”
For the average exerciser, the good news is you don’t have to be a genetic freak to better withstand pain and suffering. All you have to do is train for it. Practice it. Engage in it. Challenging yourself with regular intense exercise not only strengthens the body, it strengthens your resiliency; it toughens you up, it builds character, and it can power you through your most pressing concerns.
So put on your sneakers and stop worrying already. And I will, too.
Treva Brandon Scharf
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