Who Do You Think You Are?

Environment and experience can influence how our genes react to anxiety or depression. How to hone control over your mental health and live a happier life.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on March 10, 2004 - last reviewed on April 2, 2007

There's some reassuring news on who you are and how you got
to be that way. It's been hard to miss the information that's
been flowing out of science labs and hogging the airwaves over the past
couple of years, essentially suggesting that we are big bundles of
DNA—that our character and personality equal the sum of our DNA.
Our genes have been said to influence everything from the color of our
hair to our preference for chocolate to the side of the bed we wake up on
in the morning.

But that turns out to be, to say the least, an overstatement. Life
experience and environment count. And they mold us as firmly and as
indelibly as genes do. For one thing, environmental factors—the ups
and downs of everyday life, for example—turn genes on and off,
determine which genes get to strut their stuff, and how.

For another, indeed our genes influence such traits as aggression
and our taste for thrills. They influence how we react to stress and thus
our propensity for anxiety and/or depression. But the key word is
influence; they have a say. They do not categorically determine how we
turn out.

Take the case of stress. We have at least one set of genes, and
possibly many more, that react to stress by turning on or off or ramping
up or down the production of specific chemical messengers in our brain,
such as serotonin, a calming factor.

But not by genes alone, or low levels of serotonin, do we become
depressed. It takes some heavy doses of stress, and not simply exposure
to trauma, but our perception that we are in distress.

And that's precisely the catch. There are many ways to
intervene and modify out exposure to stress and thus prevent negative
experience from interacting with genetic susceptibility. And the ways
that we choose shape our personality.

We can, for example, head stress off entirely. Not by keeping
harmful situations from happening; they are part of life. Family illness,
injury, breakups, job loss—these are often the biggies. But we can
stop them at the outer reaches of our nervous system, where the sense of
stress first enters our awareness. We can meditate and let stressful
situations roll right by us without even reacting to them.

Or we can stop stress at any of several points in our body. We can
counter feelings of stress with relaxation exercises, or we can take the
energy of stress and deflect its negative impact, transmuting stress into
bodily good by running, or working out at the gym, or watching a funny
movie, or talking to friends. And these activities not only stop stress
in its tracks, they all also nourish us with new positive experiences
that expand our sense of self.

This is indeed good news. It suggests that we have a great deal of
control over our lives, and that we need to assume control where we can.
You are very much formed by what the world does to you—and by what
you choose to do to it.