When you respond to stress in the office, are you more of a delicate orchid? Or a hardy dandelion? Understanding your specific stress-response style (and the style of your co-workers) can help you deal with stress in the office.
Intriguing recent research by developmental psychologists links your genetic make-up to your personality. Looking at how children cope with stress, researchers found that most kids can deal with pretty much anything that life throws at them, but a few (about 10-20%) respond more sensitively to their environments.
As science writer David Dobbs put it in an Atlantic Monthly article, “Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.”
These “orchid children” are a lot like the “highly sensitive person” and, in fact, it looks to many researchers like highly sensitive people are grown-up orchid children. Like highly sensitive people, orchids tend to be more attuned to environmental stimuli, both positive and negative. They are highly empathetic and process input from the world deeply and thoroughly.
Orchids at first baffled evolutionarily minded scientists: Why would Mother Nature favor such frail characteristics in humans who must thrive in such a tough world? Further research found that the restlessness and risk-taking exemplified by many of the carriers of orchid genes could explain humanity’s development and expansion (in fact, an anthropology journal noted that the gene is most common in populations that migrated fastest and furthest from our evolutionary origins in Africa). As Dobbs put it in an article in New Scientist, “the genes that help create some of our most grievous frailties . . . may also underlie our greatest strengths.”
Among these strengths is the resilience you need to cope with stress. The original research in this area looked at the links between early childhood experiences and resilience in later life. At first, it looked like orchids’ childhood experiences did indeed dictate their coping abilities later in life – good childhood experience would result in better adult coping skills and vice versa.
But newer research offers tantalizing hints at the ability of the brain to adapt even later in life. In the conclusion of an article on brain plasticity, neuroscientist Bruce McEwen notes the “many positive aspects of brain plasticity involving such activities as regular exercise and experiences that give meaning and purpose to life, such as in the concepts of eudamonia [happiness] and positive health.”
In other words, if you fill your life with exercise, meaningful activities, and things that make you happy, then you can change the way you respond to stress. In fact, these kinds of practices underlie mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and other stress-management techniques that I’ll talk about in future blog posts.