While your emotional landscape is predetermined by genetics, there is a lot you can do about it
By Richard Labaki
Driving on the highway at the breakneck speed of 180 km/hour, George was in hyper-focus mode and all psyched up as he maneuvered his BMW between lanes. Heavy metal music bursting through the speakers, the scene could only be likened to that of a Jason Bourne car chase. Amidst this intense and potentially-dangerous situation, George glances briefly to his right to assess how I’m coping in the passenger’s seat. As he later described it, what he saw was not someone wide-eyed, physically tense and filled with fear but a person in a state of Zen savoring a grilled cheese sandwich. This took place a few decades back. And for as long as I remember, my reaction to stressful or highly charged situations was always one of calmness. When everyone around was getting all worked up over a given crisis, there I was keeping my cool under fire. This is in no way due to years of practicing deep meditative techniques on a mystical mountaintop, but simply a matter of character. And only recently have I begun to understand the genetic foundation of my inherent response to stress in general.
Breakthroughs in the realm of genetic research are revealing how certain genes could impact mood and play a major role in the predisposition to disorders such as anxiety and chronic depression. I have, for example, a certain gene that operates at a faster rate than usual, quickly clearing out “fight-or-flight” stress neurotransmitters like adrenaline and noradrenaline from my system. So in essence, my mind and body are able to remain calm most of the time, easily returning to normalcy after experiencing a nerve-racking event. But there is a downside to this as well. This gene, which is functioning at a rapid speed in my case, could also clear out dopamine very quickly, leaving the person unmotivated and low on energy. Dopamine, as you may know, is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter involved in excitement and thrills (you probably experience its uplifting effect after a workout, when falling in love and others.) The fact that all the aforementioned neurotransmitters do not stay for long in my system partially explains why I had been a classic daydreamer in the classroom during my schooldays. I was in essence the poster child of attention deficit disorder or ADD.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have this same gene operating at a slower rate than normal. Consequently, they have ample focus, energy and enthusiasm. But they also have a hard time kicking back and relaxing – so much so that they cannot sleep well in most cases. Stress neurotransmitters stay in their system for far too long, causing them to be more prone to anxiety. So apparently, what could be the source of a certain strength (be it mental, psychological or physiological) could also be a form of kryptonite. Luckily, I have managed to strengthen my focus and boost my energy levels over the years – without letting go of my calm demeanor. But with the continuous research concerning gene expression, I can even go further now. You see, genes are not static. There is an interplay between our genetic makeup and the food we eat, the lifestyle we adopt and the environment in which we live. This science is called epigenetics. And while each one of us has a variety of genetic tendencies to certain characteristics, behaviors and health conditions, understanding those predispositions helps immensely. As a result of this understanding, we could then customize our way of eating and living to become a better version of ourselves. In other words, we could always tip the “genetic” scale in our favor: turning off or balancing the “bad” genes while keeping the good ones switched on.
And this is the basis of a recent discussion I enjoyed with a psychologist friend of mine. I argued that while we all harbor psychological traits that stem from how we were raised and our individual experiences (both good and bad), our mood is largely affected by our genetic makeup, health status, and other influencing factors. Treatments in the form of cognitive therapy and the likes are sure to help you become more aware of your psychological flaws and blind-spots, but you will not attain perfect mood balance by simply becoming more cognizant. If you suffer major nutritional deficiencies, if your gut flora is disrupted (90 percent of dopamine and serotonin is produced by the good bacteria in your intestines), and if your body is burdened with toxins then your mood will always be disrupted. Working with a qualified shrink to address psychological and mood issues could help a lot. But this alone remains insufficient if your diet, lifestyle and environment are not in tune with your biochemistry and genetic makeup. My friend could not agree more.
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