Stress: Are You A Leader Who Is A Warrior or Worrier?

I read a fascinating piece in the New York Times magazine section yesterday about research into why some kids handle academic pressure well, and others crumble.  The article had all kinds of fascinating nuggets about genetic testing, and the two variants of the gene responsible for the enzyme that takes away dopamine from the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is where we make choices, plan for the future, and resolve conflicts.  One variant removes dopamine slowly, the other rapidly, and hence the Warrior (fast-acting, perform well in the heat of the moment) and Worrier (slow-acting, better at long-term planning) caricatures.  Worriers can be trained to handle stress effectively, with repeated practice. 

But for me the important takeaway isn’t about our genetic makeup, it’s also how we see stress.  Professional competitors, such as athletes and concert musicians, feel just as much pre-performance anxiety as amateurs do.  The difference is in how they interpret that anxiety – the amateurs see it as a problem, whereas for professionals, it is energizing and a source of focus.

So the next time you’re feeling stress about an upcoming performance, remind yourself that stress can be beneficial.  Being anxious about your performance can actually help you do better, with an increased flow of oxygenated blood to your brain.  Harnessing intense stress to help you do your best starts with reinforcing the truth that short-term stress can bring out the best, and not the worst, in what you are doing.


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