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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Sleep. Your brain loves it like a favourite thing.
- 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.