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

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.

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
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
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
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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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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