Are you genetically predisposed to stress and anxiety?

All of us experience stress at some point in our lives. Some of us, however, are more easily stressed out than others. Your genetics, upbringing and experiences all impact your individual stress response. Certain genes predispose you to be more sensitive to day-to-day stress than others. Each individual should, therefore, manage stress differently. The following article will discuss the most common causes of stress as well as the genes involved in your stress response.

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What is stress?

The term ‘stress’ is in fact neutral. Stress can be broken into two categories: eustress, which is positive and distress, which is negative.

Eustress (stress which is successfully managed) enables us to adapt easily - improving resilience and performance. Distress (stress which isn’t successfully managed) can negatively impact both your psychological and physical well being.This is the stress you need to avoid.

You may be surprised to learn that 50 years ago the term ‘stress’ was rarely used. The groundbreaking work of scientist, Hans Seyle, helped define stress in terms of a psychological response, as opposed to physical strain.
 

Why stress management is important

In today’s fast-paced society, effective stress management is more important than ever before. A recent survey in the UK, involving 2 000 participants, found that 85% of UK adults experience stress regularly with 39% of participants feeling stressed on a daily basis. 54% of these participants were concerned about the impact of stress on their health and 32% of people listed exercise as the best way to overcome stress.

On average, women reported feeling stressed approximately three days more than men per month, with 42% of women saying that their stress levels are too high, compared to 36% of men. Women reported that their greatest stress came from financial concerns, whereas men reported work to be their biggest stressor.

Young adults, in the 18 to 24 age bracket, were found to have the highest stress levels of all - experiencing stress for around 12 days per month. 69% of participants in this age group reported concerns around the impact of stress on their health.

What are the most common causes of stress?

The most common causes of stress (in order) are:

  1. Money and financial concerns
  2. Workplace stress
  3. Health concerns
  4. Difficulty sleeping
  5. Daily household chores

Some people are genetically predisposed to higher stress levels

While all of us feel stressed at some point or another, some people battle with stress more frequently. This boils down to genetics.

Your genes produce proteins which dictate how your body functions. Tiny differences in your genes, called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) affect the hormones and enzymes responsible for your psychological responses.

Certain genes show an elevated response to stressful events - making some people more sensitive than others. Your genetic profile shows you how susceptible your are to stress and how you handle stressful situations. Using this information, develop a personalised stress management plan to alleviate stress in your daily life.

Which genes are involved in your stress response?

There are two main genes associated with your stress response: COMT and BDNF.

COMT: how your genetics affect your performance under pressure

When it comes to performance under pressure, there’s a sliding scale of responses. This is the result of Catechol-O-Methyltransferase (COMT).

COMT is an enzyme which helps break down dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Dopamine plays a role in your reward response. Epinephrine and norepinephrine play a role in your stress response, and are responsible for your fight or flight response which triggers under extreme stress.

The COMT gene helps regulate your brain’s production dopamine. This affects how we make decisions under pressure. Depending on which version of this gene you have, your genotype is classified as either a Warrior, a Strategist (or Worriers) or a combination of the two. 

Understanding your unique genetic profile helps you to manage stress more effectively

‘Warriors’ tend to respond favourably to stress. In fact, they often work better under pressure than in calm environments. ‘Strategists’, on the other hand, fall on the opposite end of the scale. They see a reduction in performance in times of high stress. Strategists show enhanced cognitive abilities in calm situations.

BDNF: how your genetics affect your ability to tolerate stress

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that improves the functioning of neurons by encouraging growth and protecting against premature cell death. It also binds to your brain’s receptors, strengthening and improving the signals between neurons. As far as your stress response is concerned, BDNF plays a role in your resilience to stress.

The benefit of a resilient approach to stress

Resilience describes your ability to tolerate and adapt to unfavourable, stressful situations. It’s basically how you cope with higher levels of stress. Becoming aware of your stress resilience helps improve your ability to tolerate high pressure situations, without a reduction in your quality of work, health and wellbeing.

How your genetic profile influences your resilience

You’ll either have a high or low genetic predisposition towards stress resilience. Awareness of a genetic predisposition to low stress resilience helps reveal areas of focus for you to boost your mental fitness. By learning relaxing techniques to relieve stress effectively, you can lower your risk of the negative effects of stress on your health.
 

Managing stress with exercise

Exercise is known to be an excellent way to manage stress. A psychological study explains that exercise can be used as “a mechanism and a potential therapeutic role for exercise are suggested for treatment of pain, alcoholism, anxiety, bulimia, hypertension, addiction, depression, and anorexia nervosa.” This is because exercise releases endorphins. When endorphins are released, the body enters into this feel-good mode. This is how people who engage in intense endurance activities go beyond the pain barrier, and are capable of resisting the urge to quit. Their perception of pain is changed by endorphins.  
 

There are two notable endorphins involved in our stress response

Anandamide

Anandamide is a chemical associated with stress regulation. A lack of it increases your likelihood of stress. There’s also evidence that anandamide may be associated with BDNF. As we mentioned above, BDNF is essential when it comes to maintaining healthy neurons and creating new ones. The production of BDNF is crucial when trying to lower your stress levels. Exercise can increase your levels of anandamide, helping you produce healthy levels of BDNF.

Serotonin

Serotonin is the main feel-good chemical. Low levels of Serotonin are linked to developing depression. A boost in serotonin can mean everything when it comes to remaining motivated and feeling happy, and it just so happens that exercises promotes the release of it. Studies show that, in particular, “aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin.” This may be the reason why even after a gruelling marathon, runners are still smiling through grimaces of pain – and perhaps why they forget how physically demanding the race was.

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