Reactions to Stress May Be Written in Our DNA


A common complaint I hear from anxiety sufferers is that those who don’t share their struggle just can’t understand what it’s like. People with anxiety disorders (myself included) are too often on the receiving end of well-meaning advice like, “That’s not something to get upset about,” or “Try not to worry about it.”

While the intentions are usually good, this advice is misguided and not helpful for those of us trying to manage anxiety. In fact, recent scientific research shows that the way stress and anxiety impact us, is largely determined by our genes. In other words, the difference between someone who can easily navigate life’s challenges and someone who struggles to cope, may actually be their genetic makeup.

A Genetic Advantage

A recent study comparing privileged versus disadvantaged boys showed that chronic stress can cause premature genetic aging, which in turn, increases susceptibility to mood disorders and other problems later in life. And this month, a brand new study published in the journal Biodemography and Social Biology shows that genetic variations can actually affect how people respond to and recover from stress.

For the study, Jason Fletcher, a professor from the University of Wisconsin, compared survey answers from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and compared them with the DNA information of survey participants, which was also collected. Add Health surveyed adolescents aged 18-26, and “explores the influences of individual attributes and environmental factors in determining health and health-related behaviors,” according to Fletcher.

Notably, a significant portion of the Add Health study information was gathered from 2001-2002, just before and just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This offers researchers the advantage of being able to compare the various reactions to an objective, rather than self-reported, source of external stress.

What Fletcher found in his study is that overall, those interviewed after Sept. 11 had higher rates of depression and sadness — but specific gene variants seemed cause participants to be more or less likely to experience these symptoms.

“Participants with a particular gene appear to be at an increased risk for sadness,” Fletcher said. “Others with a different genetic variant reported less of an increase in sadness, which suggests their genetic makeup protects them.”

Fletcher also found that participants with another specific gene seemed to take longer to recover from their sadness than the others.

What this study suggests is that we may not have total control over the way we’re affected by stress. This is important because people who struggle with anxiety and depression are so often have their problems minimized. They are told that it’s all in their head, or made to feel that they must not be trying hard enough if they feel the way they do. But the more this kind of research sheds light on the fact that mental health issues are often rooted in our DNA – just as a great number of physical health conditions are – the closer we come to a time when, instead of being stigmatized, those who suffer from mental health issues are treated with compassion and understanding and given the help they need.

The Natural Guide to Anxiety Free Living

Marie Glenmore (64 Posts)

Marie Glenmore is an editor, writer, and holistic health enthusiast. Marie's lifelong struggle with anxiety led her to discover yoga, as well as her passion in the area of natural health and wellness. Marie originally hails from the West Coast and is now happily settled in New England.


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