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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I’m so excited for this! I’m coming back to Perth in February for another parent talk on 'Strengthening Children and Teens Against Anxiety'. Here’s the when and the where:

⏰ 6:30-8:30pm | 📆 Wed 22 Feb 2023
📍 Peter Moyes Anglican Community School, #mindarie

For tickets or more info google:

Parenting Connection WA Karen Young anxiety Mindarie Perth

💜 Thanks to @ngalaraisinghappiness for hosting this event.

#supportingwaparents #parentingwa
Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️

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