Happiness and Depression Could Be Steered By the Same Genes

Happiness and Depression Could Be Driven By the Same Genes

Genes are the secret-keepers. Within their tiny walls are so many answers to the whys and the whats of our physical and mental health. Our genetics though, are only one part of our story – and they may not have as much power to write our script as we may have once thought.

The more we learn about mental health, the more we realise the importance of the interaction between nature (genetics) and nurture (the environment). There is no single gene that ‘causes’ mental ill-health. If there was, everyone with the gene variation would go on to develop the symptoms that are associated with it. 

So if genes aren’t the full story, what’s missing?

There are genes that influence the onset of symptoms, but genes are not destiny. The key is the environment. If someone has a genetic vulnerability for mental ill-health, an adverse environment can steer this vulnerability in ways that compromise mental health. What’s fascinating, and gives us reason for optimism, is that a more positive, supportive environment can steer the same genetic vulnerability in ways that strengthen mental health. 

In a study published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, researchers have explained that the genes involved in mental ill-health could also nurture greater mental resilience. Someone with a genetic vulnerability to depression, for example, will do worse in a harmful environment than people without the genetic vulnerability, but in healthy, positive environments, they may do better than those without the vulnerability. 

‘If you take a gene that is linked to mental illness, and compare people who have the same genetic variant, it becomes clear that what happens to their mental health is based on their environment.’ – Professor Elaine Fox, Oxford University.

The same gene can work for us or against us. What’s that about?

Researchers suggest that the environment switches on a genetic vulnerability through its influence on our cognitive biases. These are the mental filters that we tend to look at the world through. 

‘Cognitive biases are when people consistently interpret situations through particular mental ‘filters’ – when people have a cognitive bias that emphasizes negative aspects or thoughts, they are more at risk of mental health disorders.’ – Professor Chris Beevers, University of Texas, Austin.

Someone with a negative cognitive bias will be more likely to turn their attention to threat or negative information. In situations that are neutral or ambiguous, a negative cognitive bias will interpret or explain those situations negatively.

If a friend is running late, for example, someone with a negative cognitive bias might interpret this as evidence that the friend doesn’t really want to be there. Someone with a positive cognitive bias, for example, might be more likely to explain the same situation as the friend was unexpectedly held up and that it was nothing to do with wanting to be there. 

Think of cognitive biases as looking through a stained glass window. If the glass is blue, we will see the world outside with a blue tinge. If the glass is covered in dust, we will see the world as a dusty one. If the glass is clear, this will be our view of the world and the people who come close enough to the window for us to notice. Depending on the environment, genes can change the ‘window’ through which we see the world. A positive environment will give us a positive view, a negative one will muddy it.

‘… some genes can make people more sensitive to the effects of their environment – for better or worse … If you have those genes and are in a negative environment, you are likely to develop the negative cognitive biases that lead to mental disorders. If you have those genes but are in a supportive environment, you are likely to develop positive cognitive biases that increase your mental resilience.’ – Professor Elaine Fox.

What is it about an environment that causes breakage?

More research is needed to understand the relationship between genetic vulnerabilities and environmental ‘switches’. There is a call to combine research about mental health genetics and research about cognitive biases. There is plenty of research about each separate field, but after reviewing a number of studies, researchers are convinced that the key to understanding more about our mental health, and more importantly how to manage it, lies in the merging of the two. 

What does it all mean? 

We all have our fault lines – the vulnerabilities that are part of being human. When those vulnerabilities are genetic, they will often stay hidden. Our only clue will be the symptoms they give life to, most likely when our environment gives them a push.

Our genes are our environment are deeply connected. We can’t change our genes, but we can influence our environment. This doesn’t mean that all that is needed for strong mental health is a change of environment. Even if it was that simple – which it’s not – changing the environment isn’t always possible. 

Further research is needed to understand the relationship between genes, the environment, and mental health. What we know for certain is that the environment around us matters, for better or worse. The people around us, the family we grew up in, our physiology, our work culture, the food we eat, the quality and quantity of sleep and exercise we get, the air we breathe, the pollutants and toxins we are exposed to – it all matters.

Anything you can do to make your environment better for you will be important:

  1. Toxic people will contaminate your self-esteem and the way you view the world. Whenever you can, show them the door. Now slam it shut behind them. Now check it to make sure it’s locked. Done? Good. Great. You’ve probably been wanting to that for a while. 
  2. Get plenty of exercise. This will increase vital neurochemicals and help to build the structure of the brain for the better, protecting and promoting stronger mental health. 
  3. Sleep. Your brain loves it like a favourite thing.
  4. Spend time deliberately focusing on positive things. It’s easy to get swamped by the bad, but when you can focus on something that stirs up the feel-good, it will change the structure of your brain for the better. It doesn’t have to be anything big – a text message that makes you happy, a feeling, a photo, a memory – anything that stirs something lovely in you. 20 seconds is enough to start the rewiring. Read more about that here. 

And finally …

Researchers are looking deeper into the combined influence of genetics and the environment on our mental filters. The hope is for a greater understanding of how genetics and the environment interact to affect our mental health. The more we can widen our knowledge, the more this will open up the way for effective treatment and management options, and ways to nurture mental health and mental resilience for all of us.

2 Comments

Barbara

I needed this.
Is it true that Depression usually skips a generation ?
My kid swears I bi polar I am not.
I am still here because of you !

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Barbara I’m so pleased you found this. We’re still not sure how the genetics of depression work, but it seems that there are genes that make people more likely to get depression. Not everyone who has the gene that makes them vulnerable to depression, will go on to get depression. It depends a lot on the environment – stress, the family you grew up in, the relationships around you, the food you eat, the air you breathe, the chemicals and toxins you’re exposed to and of course physical things like chronic pain will also make a difference. This means that it could easily skip a generation or a few generations. It could also be in some families but not others of the same generation. They’re getting closer to understanding it though and closer to finding a cure. I’m so pleased you’re still here. Stay. You are needed and wanted and important. Keep fighting for you.

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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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