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.

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
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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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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