Is Stress In Your DNA?

Did you inherit more than you bargained for?

30/11/2016 10:01 PM AEDT | Updated 02/12/2016 12:21 PM AEDT
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More often than not, we're very quick to lay claim to the positive traits our parents passed on. Someone comments on your lovely complexion -- "Oh my Mum's always had the most amazing skin, I get it from her." But what about the other less visible, more complex, characteristics that have filtered through the family tree.


Can our bloodline be responsible for our bad moods and does stress run in the family? Trying to figure out our D-N-A isn't as easy as A–B-C, but with a little help from the professionals, it's possible to learn a lot about the legacy of your lineage.

Are Some People Born More Likely To Experience High Stress Levels?

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Now it may seem unfair, but according to Dr Tim Sharp -- psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute -- from the moment we arrive nature has already decided which of us will be targets for stress.

"There's no doubt that some people are more susceptible or predisposed to experience stress, depression and anxiety," Dr Sharp said. "That being said, genetic make-up doesn't account for 100% of negative moods."We're more likely to have our stress responses influenced by Epigenetics – it sounds fancy but it basically refers to the way our DNA is manipulated when it's at the cellular stage. So if our parents experienced high levels of stress when we were young -- or before we were even alive -- chances are they've passed on that panic.

Zachary Kaminsky, an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained the way it works. "What science has recently discovered is that these genes can be manipulated by the environment," Professor Kaminsky said. "If a mother is exposed to stress while she's pregnant, she is able to potentially pass on a risk to a higher level of stress in the baby."

What Are The Impacts Of Stress On Our DNA?

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When we're experiencing stress it's hard to focus on anything other than what we're feeling. It's all encompassing and doesn't leave much time to consider the damage you're potentially doing to your DNA. And while stress does in fact alter our genes, it's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Professor Kaminsky.

"Think of it like this, when we were cavemen surrounded by predators it's a stressful environment, so we want our cavemen kids to be jumpy and easily stressed," he explained. "These mechanisms have evolved to improve the survival of the next generation."

So while you may struggle to stress less, at least you can rest easy in the knowledge you're actually aiding evolution. Which is good news considering a whopping thirty five percent of us believe we're "stressed," according to the Stress and Wellbeing survey, conducted last year by the Australian Psychology Society.


How Does Positively Managing Stress Affect Our DNA?

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While it may seem like your DNA has predetermined your likelihood to experience stress, don't worry, help is here. Turns out it is possible to reverse the hand you were dealt. Ultimately, nurture trumps nature and our reaction is what really matters. "What happens to us is not nearly as important as how we respond to what happens to us," said Dr Sharp, a leader in the field of Positive Psychology. "And how we respond can significantly determine the extent to which a stressor impacts our mood and more generally, our lives."

Professor Kaminsky agreed, believing that the ball is really in our court at the end of the day. "Studies have shown positive stress management techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness meditation do work," he explained. "These therapies can improve someone's psychological outcome and can -- to an extent -- reverse the DNA changes associated with stress."

This is where mindfulness and meditation can really contribute positively to combating your predisposition to stress. "Practicing mindfulness has been shown to have enormous benefits in terms of reducing stress," Dr Sharp said.

Meanwhile, it pays to remember that not all stress is bad and sometimes a little stress can go a long way.

"It can motivate us to make positive changes; it can energise us to take action," he said. "So look for the positive lessons that can be learned and how challenges can contribute to improvements."

If anyone knows what it takes to be happy - and stress less - it's Tim Sharp. Known as Dr. Happy, Tim Sharp is the founder and CHO - that's Chief Happiness Officer - at the Happiness Institute, Australia's first organisation devoted solely to enhancing happiness. Read on for his top tips for reducing stress.

  • Keep things in perspective: Ask yourself whether or not this will matter in a day, a week, a month or a year!
  • Reassure yourself that "this too shall pass."
  • Exercise: Working out is one of the simplest and most powerful stress busters available.
  • Relax and meditate: Practicing mindfulness helps reduce stress and improve positive moods.
  • Focus on what's going right, even if some things are going wrong.

Reducing stress and increasing happiness helps us all live healthier, more fulfilled lives. It enables us to feel confident in the decisions we make about our homes, lives and well-being. Get Confidence by your side with NRMA Insurance.

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