For those of you who have teens with test anxiety, this article found at the bottom of this page will be a god send. Perhaps PSATs or SATs are in your teen's near future, or your state's school achievement tests, or maybe just a chapter quiz on his/her math or history chapter. Whatever it is, you may be dreading these tests more than your teen, knowing how stressed and anxious your teen gets when any testing situation rears it's ugly head. Well it turns out, that how stressed your teen, or any age kid for that matter gets, has everything to do with biology and genes.
Scientists have isolated a particular gene-COMT that is responsible for maintaining an optimal level of dopamine in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This is the executive functioning part of the brain, that is responsible for thinking. Some of us have either of one particular variant of this gene, and others of us have a combo of both.
Variant 1 COMT gene clears the dopamine from the brain slowly. Under non-stressful conditions this allows for optimal learning. Usually variant 1 holders are intelligent and good learners. However under stressful situations,when dopamine floods their brain, and it can't clear the dopamine fast enough, these people crumble under stress. Think of a car engine that usually runs very well, but when the engine floods, no go. Some of you may have teens who are extremely good students, study hard and get good grades, but when they are tested, like in an SAT, their scores are much lower that expected, given their consistency of good grades. This COMT is what is responsible, the brain literally is on dopamine overload.
Now the variant 2 COMT gene works just the opposite. It clears the dopamine from the brain very quickly. These are the kinds of learners who are often bored and lackadaisical. But for them, when they are in that same SAT stress-filled situation and the dopamine is flushing through their brain in great quantities, their brain get into high gear and they often do really well in testing situations. Think of mild-mannered Clark Kent who goes into the phone booth and blasts out of it as Superman. For those of you with kids like this, you will see low motivation for the boring repetitive nature of regular school, but get them in a testing situation they do amazing. So maybe you might see, mediocre grades but high test scores.
Some people have a combination of both COMT genes and are just right in the biology department of the brain.
Whew!!!! This is alot of science. Best to read the article below for the full explanation. But I do want to talk about how to use this information with your teens, I am a firm believer that knowledge is power. For those of you who have kids with the Variant 1 COMT- high anxiety stressful situations, just letting them know that there is a brain chemistry factor here may be a huge relief. These kinds of kids can be so hard on themselves when they fail to live up to their own expectations, judging themselves way more harshly than you or their teachers. Helping them to understand that when they get stressed, their brain can't function in the most optimal way. For these kids, it would be helpful to help them develop strategies for decreasing stress prior to these testing situations. Doing visualization exercises, imagining themselves feeling confident and relaxed during testing, or teaching them how to do relaxation breathing before going into a stressful situation. Download a meditation from Itunes they can listen to prior to engaging in a stressful situation. The most important thing is to give them the confidence that this is something they can change and work on and be in control of.
For your variant 2 COMT, it is not the testing situation that is their problem it is the more mundane of daily learning and working to keep their motivation up. You want to keep their brain flooded with dopamine at all times. These are kids who would work very well with incentives, and competitions, helping them to getting excited about something they can win/get after a challenge.
Where ever your kids fall in this continum, giving your kids the information gives them the power to be in control of their brain. And since the stage of Adolescence is all about power and control, it is a perfect match!