The association between stress and anxiety has now been well established. And with the ever-increasing pace of modern-day life seemingly accelerating at an exponential rate we need to ask the question of…
Is stress in our genes, and is there anything that we can do to combat it?
To answer this, we firstly need to understand stress in slightly more detail.
In simplistic terms there are 3 types of stress.
Acute stress happens to the vast majority of people throughout the day, but it’s usually fleeting.
From running for the train and losing your tempter at not getting a seat, to the occasional bungee jump. You can encounter the effects of acute stress from a variety of situations, but it usually results in no harm.
Short-term stress can be seen from a variety of tell-tale signs, such as:
• Headaches, neck and back pain
• Heart burn, digestion problems, constipation
• Increased anger, depression and anxiety
• Increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, problems relaxing/sleeping
Episodic acute stress is when you continually have episodes of acute stress. You will find that people who have busy work or family lives, or cannot quite get the work life balance right, will fall into the category fairly easily.
Episodic acute stress can be seen from a variety of tell-tale signs, such as:
• Muscle tension, tension in shoulders, headaches and migraines
• Higher risk of colds and flu, as your immune system will be affected
• Increased risk of anxiety, depression and a negative effect on mental fatigue
Chronic stress is by far the most serious out of all the different kinds of stress, as a pronounced stress response over an extended time period will damage both your physical and mental health significantly. When your stress levels rise, you’ll release the hormone cortisol, which is responsible for a whole variety of metabolic functions, such as helping to regulate your thyroid hormone.
The thyroid regulates nearly every major metabolic function in your body, and as such, a poor functioning thyroid can have a detrimental effect on nearly every area of your health.
Multiple examples of poor thyroid function include weight gain, reduced metabolic rate, fatigue, feeling depressed or moody, dry hair and skin, and many more.
Now how does genetics and your individual genes play into this?
Well, your genes will actually predispose you to a variety of stress outcomes.
Below are the 6 main areas that Muhdo analyses for within the Stress Health Insight, that we can now go through in more detail to allow you to understand the differing forms of stress.
And while in many instances it will be completely normal to have a certain action or reaction in a stressful situation.
Pressure is the perception that one may have of external factors affecting life. Many people often conclude that they are stressed due to the pressures placed upon them from finances, friends or family, perceived duty, work and a multitude of other factors. How one responds to the situation may differ due to their gene variations and so translating this result will lead to a superior understanding of oneself.
Acute stress may cause a sudden loss of recall, which unfortunately could come at a time when you need it the most (think exams, tests, etc.). Chronic stress might also lead to an inability to actually form new memories, which – again – if you are revising, practicing for an event, or meeting new people, could be highly detrimental.
Our genes play a role in this response and understanding this may help you put into place certain pre-test rituals, methods of revising, etc. that may reduce stress levels and therefore benefit your memory.
The way we deal with stress is highly important. Methods to reduce stress may include breathing exercises, meditation, eating certain foods, going to the gym or for a run, yoga, etc. However, some people are more likely to keep themselves isolated when chronically stressed and research has shown that it is better to talk with others instead of going into isolation. There has also been some correlation between those who are more likely to isolate themselves and certain genetic variants.
Stress can cause a magnitude of physical symptoms. Acute stress can cause tremors, muscle twitches, sweating, flushing, increased heart rate, skin itching, headaches, and more.
Chronic stress can cause increased blood pressure, muscle aches and can lead to a limitless number of diseases such as diabetes, obesity and migraines. Genetic variants are linked to how we may respond to stress from a physical perspective.
Stress can cause a host of physical issues as highlighted in the “stress leading to physical symptoms” aspect. One major part of stress that does lead to physical symptoms is the effect it has on the heart. Stress can affect the heart in both a chronic and acute sense and these could have the same or different symptoms, with certain genetic variants being linked to how the heart may be affected by stress.
Caffeine is a stimulant and as such can help to “perk” you up if you are feeling fatigued or tired. It is often utilised to help with focus before training or learning. Caffeine, like all drugs, affects people in different ways and as such may or may not be a good choice in times of stress. In general, caffeine will increase heart rate, and this may be negative for any stressful situation.
Energy drinks containing caffeine are often used in times of exams and tests and so understanding how you may respond in these stressful situations is vital for making the correct choice.
You can easily see from the examples above of the differing forms that stress can manifest itself.
One of the keys to combating this is firstly knowing that you may be genetically predisposed to having a specific outcome, this would hopefully give you some reassurances in knowing that you are in fact “Hardwired” to feeling this way.
Then secondly, once you have made the realisation that your genes encode for a specific outcome, you can mitigate for their effect with certain tweaks to your diet, exercise and lifestyle.
A few examples of how you can change your lifestyle would to include Exercise as it increases the expression of gene BDNF, which will improve cognitive performance, memory and help alleviate anxiety and the physical symptoms of stress. 15 minutes a day may be all you need to help.
You could also look to include more vitamin C, as studies have shown that it can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system.
There are also a handful of other nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and calcium that can dramatically decrease psychological distress, and reduce your overall stress levels as well.
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