Reduced to its basics we can say that the human condition is a product of genes and the environment. We know we have a certain level of control over our environment, but it is often assumed we have no control over our genes. In any attempt to beat anxiety it is worth knowing that genes are like switches; we can in fact switch them on and off.
Unfortunately our full understanding of genes in relation to anxiety remains a bit sketchy so the production of a ‘magic bullet’ tablet to target and switch off anxiety has a few years to go. Meanwhile, scientists are painstakingly tracking down the genes that produce and regulate mood hormones like cortisol and serotonin.
Anxiety, depression and other mood disorders are known to have a strong genetic component. Various proteins surround and stick to DNA and part of the role of these chemicals is to switch genes on and off. Factors such as diet and lifestyle issues are known to have a significant role in switching genes on or off. The implication for anyone with a genetic predisposition towards anxiety and depression is that by balancing environmental influences protective genes can be switched on while others can be switched off.
Of course if it was just down to switching to salads and getting out the rowing machine everyone’s troubles would quickly dissipate. Even so, it does rather depend on the depth of the problem. Some people can find complete relief by making changes to their diet and lifestyle whilst others may feel just a little better. So, why the differences? Some of the more obvious reasons relate to whether you are male or female. Women, for example, have the burden of having naturally higher levels of stress hormones, while testosterone in men appears to protect against stress. Early life experiences appear to have significant effects on the sympathetic nervous system that can affect levels of sensitivity in later life and for the whole of life. We are unable to reverse-engineer our early life experiences but we do have it within our gift to modify their effects.
Our bodies do not discriminate between physical and psychological stress. Stress hormones are as likely to be produced in response to thirst, food additives, caffeine and viral infections as they are to negative emotions. Likewise, a noisy, hot, polluted environment feeds the stress response. Alcohol, recreational drugs and cigarettes, all have negative effects although at the time they may feel as though they are alleviating anxiety or low moods. The list could be extended but the point of the exercise is to suggest that every single example is something we have the potential to change.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.