My genes made me miserable. Now what?
Posted April 21, 2016
If modern science is correct, it seems somewhere between 50 to 80 percent of our happiness is determined not by our circumstances but by our genetics. It also seems the majority of us are programmed to be wound up tight full of stress and anxiety.
Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense. If you imagine two rabbits standing at the edge of a clearing looking at an abundance of fresh food in the center, at least one of them needs enough courage to venture out and get the food; but, in order for their genes to survive, it’s also important for one to stay hidden in case there is danger lurking nearby. For maximum survival of a species, most of the members must be careful (somewhat worried or stressed) with only a few willing to confront the danger.
The trouble with evolutionary theories is that we are human. We don’t only exist and evolve; we experience and reflect on our feelings. Living in a constant state of worry or stress — like many of us do — is unpleasant and unhealthy. It’s hard to feel happy when you’re too busy being careful.
So what are your options if genetics have left you feeling less than satisfied with your life?
There are four things you can do to overcome your natural ways of responding to your circumstances.
We all have two thought streams running through our minds: an intentional or conscious thought stream and an automatic or subconscious thought stream. Generally, it’s the subconscious thought stream — where our survival instinct resides — that holds us back. If we can learn to recognize and tap into that subconscious thought stream, we can retrain it in a way that feels more satisfying to our conscious thought stream.
We call this mindfulness, and meditation is the primary way to practice it. There are plenty of resources you can find to guide you through it.
For those of you who struggle to meditate, mindfulness can be learned in other ways like through writing.
And for those of you who believe you lack the time to practice mindfulness, you might enjoy "The Miracle of Mindfulness" or "Peace is Every Step" by Thich Nhat Hanh. Both books will teach you how to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life.
Once you’ve learned to identify the thoughts that are holding you back, you can start the retraining process. Cognitive therapy is a time-tested and effective methodology for retraining your thoughts.
If you’re not a big fan of therapy, that’s okay because cognitive therapy has been around long enough for there to be some helpful resources you can use at home on your own. Two of my favorites are "The Feeling Good Handbook" and "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life." Both books are full of information and exercises to help you gradually retrain or reprogram your natural inclinations.
According to Dr. Jonathan Haidt, stress kills the cells in your brain that are supposed to turn off your stress. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The good news is the cycle can be broken with four to five weeks of antidepressant use.
For those who don’t want prescriptive medication, there is an herbal antidepressant called St. John’s Wort you can purchase over the counter. Please be aware, however, that it is not FDA approved. Its effectiveness varies, and it can interfere with a variety of other drugs you might be taking. The best way to take this step is under the supervision of a doctor.
Exercise (but not the way you think)
Finally, you probably know a proper diet and physical exercise can build your resistance to sickness and disease. But what you might not know is there is such a thing as mental exercise, which can increase your resistance to depression, self-doubt and discouragement.
Mental wellness workouts are exercises and activities that have been scientifically proven to boost your mental health by giving you more confidence, creativity and energy. They might not make you sweat like traditional workouts, but if you actually do the work (as opposed to merely considering it), you will find many of them just as taxing.
Here’s an example: every day for two weeks, recall and physically write down three good things that have happened to you. This might seem silly at first, but research has shown that within 15 days of doing this exercise, severely depressed individuals experience improvement, their depression becoming moderate or even mild. And 94 percent experience relief.
When used together, these concepts work. Perhaps you’ve been afraid that if therapy works for you, you’re going to be stuck visiting a therapist forever. You might also be worried that if you start medication, you’ll be relying on putting a foreign substance into your body forever. But that’s not necessarily true. If you’re willing to make your mental health a daily priority, it’s possible to learn the skills you need to feel good consistently.
Your genetics may have determined who you are, but they don't have to decide who you'll become.
Christine Walker is a freelance writer, certified teacher and mother of four. She can be contacted through her website.