Just Explain It: Students & Stress


For some students, just going to school can be very stressful.  Add standardized tests to the mix, and even a gifted student can be unnerved.   

Performing well on high school competency exams opens the door to a student’s academic future like never before.  In some cases, the pressure has even filtered down to elementary school…where competition for collegiate scholarships has found a surprising new starting place.

In this Just Explain It, we’ll break down the science behind why some students perform well under pressure, while others don’t.  We’ll also look into what can be done to help students perform better in stressful situations.

Researchers have found that the success of some students can be linked to how fast dopamine is cleared from their brain.

Dopamine is a chemical messenger that helps transmit signals between nerve cells of the brain.  The chemical has many functions, playing important roles in behavior and cognition, attention, working memory and learning. Our brains work best when there’s not too much or too little dopamine.

That’s where what’s known as the COMT gene comes into play - and it comes in the form of two variants. The fast variant removes dopamine quickly and the slow variant removes the chemical gradually.

Studies of people in two environments were conducted…one under normal conditions, the other under stressful conditions.  It was found that under normal conditions, people with the slow-acting COMT gene excelled when performing mental tasks.   Under those conditions, people with the fast-acting gene didn’t perform as well.

The outcome was reversed when people were subjected to a great deal of stress.  That’s because dopamine overloads the brains of people with the slow-acting gene  – hampering their ability.  You see, dopamine rises in stressful situations.  So in this circumstance, the fast-acting gene keeps the brain’s dopamine at normal levels.

The COMT gene variants have also been shown to actually predict the activity of regions of the brain involved in cognition and emotional responses, said David Goldman, a National Institutes of Health scientist and author of “Our Genes Our Choices.“ This gene is an example of the genetic reasons why people’s brains work a little differently, and how the expression of these differences is altered by the contexts in which people find themselves, and choose.

How this all works has been studied in real life situations.  Researchers in Taiwan followed 779 students who took the national competency exam.  Under more stress than usual, students with the slow-acting enzymes scored eight percent lower on average than those with the fast-acting ones.   

There’s no need to worry though, it’s not either/or for most people.   About 50 percent of all people inherit one of each gene variation from their parents.  So that means most people have medium acting enzymes. The other half is split between fast and slow acting genes.

Researchers also found that experience leveled the playing field.  The more practice someone had at performing tasks, the less likely they were to melt under pressure.

We know that practice makes perfect, but here are some other things that can help students reduce stress.  

1.  Eat healthy.  Meals should include fruits and vegetables.
2.  Exercise regularly.
3.  Do things you enjoy often like, hobbies, sports and reading.
4.  Make sure you get enough sleep.
5.  Learn relaxation techniques like, meditation and deep breathing.

Research from the University of Missouri shows that being involved in school activities like, chess, spelling bees or science fairs gives students a chance to perform.  Some of these moments might be very stressful, but there’s a chance they could payoff in the end.  

Did you learn something? Do you have a topic you’d like explained?  Give us your feedback in the comments below or on Twitter using #JustExplainIt. 
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