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 !

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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