Yoga and Meditation Can Reverse DNA Activity Which Causes Stress, Illness, Anxiety and Depression

Yoga and Meditation Can Reverse DNA Activity Which Causes Stress, Illness, Anxiety and Depression

The mind and the body are a power couple, and like all couples that were meant to be together, the direction of influence goes both ways. The mind can influence the body, and the body can influence the mind – and new research has found that together they can change our DNA.

Fascinating new research has found that by strengthening both the mind and the body through mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi, we can influence our physiology at a genetic level. Specifically, we can reverse the molecular reactions in our DNA that cause stress, illness, anxiety and depression.

‘These [mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation] are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed. Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.’ Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement.

Let’s talk about the research.

The research involved an analysis of over a decade of studies that explored the effect of MBIs such as mindfulness, tai chi, and yoga, on the behaviour of our genes. They also looked at how those changes affected mental and physical health. The researchers specifically looked at the way the genes activated to produce proteins that influence the biology of our body, brain and immune system. Here’s what they found …

During stress, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered. This is the system that initiates the fight or flight response. When this system switches on, it increases the production of a molecule (NF-kB) which is involved in producing proteins (cytokines) that cause cellular inflammation. Cytokines help recovery and immunity by directing cells towards infection and injury.

It’s the duration of stress, rather than the intensity, that causes problems. When the stress response is short-lived, it’s healthy and helpful. Inflammation is designed to help us heal by boosting our immune system. Often though, the stress we are confronted with is psychological, which is just as real and valid as physical stress, and potentially at least as damaging.

Psychological stress is not a threat to our physical bodies, but it can become one. Under any form of stress, physical or psychological, our bodies continue to produce immune-boosting, inflammatory cytokines, but this inflammation response was only ever meant to switch on briefly and in response to a threat to our physical selves. When the assault from stress is more long-lasting and relentless, as much modern stress is (think work stress, relationship stress, family stress, financial stress), inflammation triggered by the stress response becomes chronic and can cause damage to cells. This is when we become vulnerable to a host of conditions, including physical illnesses such as asthma, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, as well as anxiety or depression.

According to the research, MBIs seem to reverse the response to stress by decreasing the production of NF-kB and cellular-inflammation-causing cytokines. This counteracts the effects of stress on the immune system, which reduces the risk of inflammation-related diseases and illnesses.

Okay, so that’s the science, but how does it work?

It’s clear that MBIs can have a significant physiological effect on our DNA activity, but the exact mechanism remains unclear. One of the ways they might work is by building our capacity to limit stress-inducing mind-wandering.

The human brain is magnificent. It’s efficient, powerful, and hardworking, but sometimes it has to deal with an overload of information coming in from the environment. When there is too much to process, the brain uses its attention system to direct its resources. Wherever attention is steered, the brain’s resources will follow. Think of attention like an amplifier. It enlarges the target and makes it clearer, so the brain can more effectively apply its resources. 

Sometimes, our attention steers us towards things that cause us prolonged psychological stress. Our minds are exquisite wanderers. In fact, research from Harvard has found that our minds wander about 50% of our waking time. Of course they wander into happy places, but they also wander into the future (where they worry), past (regrets), or to reliving emotional memories that breathe life into negative emotion. All of these are potentially sources of great psychological stress.

The Harvard research also found that 4.6% of a person’s happiness was attributable to the activity they were doing, and 10.8% was attributable to their mind-wandering. The researchers found that mind-wandering was generally the cause of unhappiness, not the consequence of it.

‘Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.’ A. Killingsworth, Harvard.

Our minds are powerful, for better and worse. MBIs put us in charge of the machine. There is nothing wrong with letting our minds wander – minds love it. There is also nothing wrong with letting our minds wander to places that stir stress or negative emotion, provided that we are able to pull ourselves back from that when we need to. Too often though, our mind-wandering becomes automatic, and without any deliberate intent. This is when the trouble happens.

When our minds switch to auto-pilot and start wandering, it can be easy for them to end up somewhere that amplifies negative thoughts and feelings and breathes fire into stress. Our thoughts become worries and they grow. Our memories become reworked or replayed, and rather than reflecting or learning, we become stuck and overwhelmed. This is when stress can become chronic, and we know what happens then … the sympathetic nervous system stays on, the production of NF-kB increases, cytokines are produced and ‘hello’ cellular inflammation. 

MBIs have great capacity to boost our mental and physical health, and to cause changes in our DNA that reverse the effects of chronic stress. MBIs can build our capacity to become aware of our thoughts, feelings and sensations, without letting them become a source of distress. They can also strengthen our capacity to reverse from the stress response once it’s initiated. However MBIs work, it’s clear that mind-body interventions are a powerful way to protect ourselves from the damaging effects of psychological stress, and to potentially reverse the effects once they’ve taken hold.

16 Comments

Rob

Hi Karen. I would like to pursue MBI’s. I don’t know where to start though. I suffer from depression and ruminate. I’ve tried what could be described as MBI as suggested by my doctors but I can’t clear my mind. It’s always going at a million miles and hour. I must always be doing something. I’m in Australia. Do you have any suggestions on where I might be able to get help to clear my mind as I assume you do when meditating? Based on this article I may be able to benefit from giving my mind a rest. Thanks, Rob

Reply
Karen Young

Rob I think a great place to start might be with an app. The Smiling Mind app is free to download and has guided meditations. I like it because of the research that continues to go into it. Having a guided meditation can make things easier because you have something to focus on. Another way to get started is with breath counting. As you breathe in and out slowly, count your breaths. So in (count 1), out (count 1), in (count 2), out (count 2) etc. This can help to still your mind because of the focus on your breath. Meditation can take a little while to get used to, so it doesn’t matter if your mind tends to be a little reluctant to be still. Remember mindfulness emphasises kindness and compassion to yourself, so if your mind wanders, gently bring it back without feeling as though you haven’t done ‘properly’. The brain is like any muscle – it will strengthen with training.

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Jean Tracy, MSS

Loved your explanations, Karen, especially about the positive or negative effects of mind-wandering.

I will share this article with my social media sites.

Reply
Angeline

I’m wondering about the effects on existential depression. The feeling of hopelessness that has always been there. Not belonging, feeling lost and confused. Not able to find even moments of joy but just waiting for life to be over. That seems like it would be different than stress or depression about something in particular (work, relationship, etc).

Reply
Karen Young

Depression doesn’t always have to be about something. That’s one of the confusing, awful things about it. Many people with depression will say that, ‘on paper’ their lives are fine. Depression is about feeling a sense of numbness or hopelessness. It’s physical and although circumstances can add to it, it can certainly happen for no reason at all and life circumstances, environment etc can have no bearing at all. There is a lot of research suggesting that cellular inflammation and an imbalance of neurochemicals contribute to depression. What you are describing sounds like depression. If you haven’t already, it may be helpful for you to speak with a doctor or counsellor to find a way to find relief. There are many articles on this link that will hopefully help you towards finding relief from your symptoms https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/depression/. The hopelessness that comes with depression can be very convincing, and can make you believe that nothing will make a difference, but that is a symptom of depression, and not necessarily the way it is.

Reply
Karen Young

Anthony this would depend on where you live. Try looking online for a class that is near you, but make sure the instructor or therapist is accredited.

Reply
Ian

I found the book “the power of now” really helpful in understanding links between the mind, emotions, and body, also provided some practical techniques to manage anxiety.

Reply
Robert

Anthony, look up Psychology Today on google. They have an excellent search tool for finding therapists that allows you to be very specific about what you’re looking for.
Search your city and state, and look for someone who uses MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy). Most of the therapists you will find will either be able to help you or be able to point you in the right direction. Good luck!

Reply
Robbee

Hey Sigmund. You know this article was interesting but actually affected me in a negative way. I struggle with depression (although not lately). I’ve tried these methods but I can’t stop my mind thinking, straying to the negative. I can’t seem to make meditation (for instance) work for me. So this re-enforces the darkness of my future. I’d love to stop my mind, clear my mind. I believe my mind/brain needs a rest and don’t know how to do it. Any suggestions? Thanks Rob

Reply
Karen Young

Rob I completely understand what you are saying. Your mind is strong and powerful, and it might take some time to ‘retrain’ it out of its tendency to stray to negative thoughts. Meditation can be difficult when there are so many negative thoughts making too much noise. Have you tried using guided meditations? The Smiling Mind app is brilliant and it contains different programs of guided meditations. The good things about this, is that you can focus on the voice and the words of the person talking, making it harder for your mind to become distracted by negative thinking. Start with 7 minutes at first and work up from there. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go to plan. Everything you do will be strengthening your brain. Meditation is like anything – it can take practice. Every time you give your mind the opportunity to be still, you are giving it what it needs, regardless of whether or not it is able to spend the entire time still. If 7 minutes is difficult, start with five then work up from there. Remember that you’re retraining your brain, and like retraining your body, it can take time. Don’t lose hope though. Think of it like drops in a bucket. The first few (perhaps the first many) drops might not be noticeable, but eventually, the drops add up and you start noticing the difference. This will happen for you – just don’t give up on it too soon.

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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.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

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 that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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