How Your DNA Affects Your Resilience

How Your DNA Affects Your Resilience / Alessandra Edwards

In the field of behavioural psychology there is plenty of evidence that the way in which we view stress – either as enhancing or debilitating – can change our physical, emotional and rational response. In other words, the amount of stress we experience is not only due to stress itself but also to our belief around it.

On the other hand, in the field of nutritional psychiatry we also know that levels of the stress chemicals dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline in the brain affect how we experience stress, and manipulation of these levels changes someone’s experience of stress.

So when it comes to enhancing our resilience which one is more effective? Mindset or chemical manipulation?

You could argue that neither on its own is completely effective. Why is it that a positive stress mindset is not a successful strategy for everyone? And why is it that some people still continue to feel anxiety even with medication?

I have worked with plenty of clients who have done extensive mindset work and/or who were on targeted meds and yet they were still stuck in a vicious stress/rumination/anxiety loop.

It turns out that our unique genetic blueprint may be the missing link to enhanced resilience by affecting both our brain chemicals as well as our mindset. We have known for quite some time that our unique genetics dictate whether we naturally produce high or low levels of stress chemicals in our brain. A recent study looking at mindset interventions has now revealed that changes in a particular gene called Worrier/Warrior affect whether a person may benefit from a mindset shift or not.

When study participants who had the Worrier gene, which gives them higher levels of dopamine and adrenaline, were exposed to a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ manipulation they experienced a great reduction in their stress response both at physical and emotional levels. Their physical markers for stress reduced and they felt stronger and more resilient.

The opposite was true for people who had lower levels of dopamine and adrenaline (Warrior gene) to begin with. When exposed to stress-mindset manipulations they experienced no benefit from the mindset changes.

Of course, we need more studies to confirm this but in my view, this finding is very exciting as it paves the way for a highly personalised approach to increasing stress adaptability both from a personal and professional perspective. Think of this: HR initiatives in the workplace could be tailored to individuals and/or teams with similar genetics to obtain the best possible outcomes. Psychology-based interventions could take into account individual genetic variations to map out a personalised strategy. From a personal perspective, we could maximise the benefit from lifestyle-based stress-reducing activities by selecting the most appropriate ones for our genes.

In this world of high stress, limited time and relentless pressure a DNA-based personalised resilience strategy might just be what the doctor ordered.