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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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